Gordon takes one for the team ... again
Jeff Gordon did everything he could to pass teammate Jimmie Johnson and win at Martinsville. Well, almost everything, writes David Newton.
"Boss better give me the OK 'cause that's the only way it's going to happen," the four-time Cup champion said.
Gordon was looking for permission from car owner Rick Hendrick to bump Johnson out of the lead to collect his 76th career victory.
He didn't get it.
Despite a couple of hard shots to the back of Johnson's car and a door-to-bumper finish on the closing lap, Gordon was unable to tie Dale Earnhardt for sixth place on NASCAR's all-time wins list.
Here's the question: Would Earnhardt have asked?
"Probably not," Gordon said.
Earnhardt, who earned his "Intimidator" nickname, likely would have sent Johnson spiraling into the wall to make the pass. He would have done it and not apologized afterward.
Gordon didn't, leaving him to apologize to his crew for not winning.
"Sorry, guys," he said as Johnson celebrated this third win in the past four races and the fourth straight for Hendrick Motorsports. "Sorry."
Deep down, Gordon probably wanted to pull an Earnhardt. He got so mad at the way Johnson blocked him the final few laps that he radioed: "If he's going to race me like that, he's not going to give me no freaking choice."
Not that Gordon took it easy on Johnson. He bumped him so hard Johnson said it would have set off an airbag in a passenger car.
Had they been racing in the old car and not the Car of Tomorrow -- which has a front bumper that matches up with the back bumper on contact -- Johnson said, he would have crashed.
"The last one moved me clean up the track in Turns 3 and 4," Johnson said. "We've been in this situation before racing hard. He has respect for me, as I do for him. We'll work it out."
Johnson and Gordon have raced hard before, but not this hard, not as far as Gordon was concerned.
"I think he knew I was his teammate, and he used that up," Gordon said. "That's fine. That's what we do going forward. I'm extremely happy for those guys. They did a great job. I'm more disappointed we finished second. That's the biggest thing"
Gordon got inside Johnson several times, including in the final turn, when he had his bumper up to Johnson's door. But, because there still are aero problems on the COT, he never could get enough momentum to complete the pass.
"I pushed, I shoved and I did just about everything I possibly could," Gordon said. "I don't know what else to do. I'm a little more surprised the way he raced me. We, as teammates, we usually give a little bit more room than that.
"But I know going forward how we're going to race. He's the guy to beat for the championship. He's winning races right now, and we're not."
If Johnson and Gordon weren't teammates, this might be the making of the kind of rivalry Gordon had with Earnhardt before the seven-time champion was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
But there definitely was a tone in Gordon's voice and a look of intensity in his face that suggested he's tired of watching the driver of the car he co-owns with Hendrick get all the glory.
"I really thought we should have won this one, and I'm disappointed that we didn't," Gordon said. "You watched the video. I did everything I could. It is what it is. I finished second, I'm pissed off about it. Sorry."
It was the second straight week in which Gordon had to choose whether to wreck a teammate to win. Kyle Busch won last week's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, with Gordon finishing third after holding off on spinning Busch to win.
"Because last week I got the speech, look at the big picture," Gordon said of the radio message from Hendrick. "This week, I had such a faster car and he wasn't giving me a whole lot of room."
Looking at the big picture, Gordon and Johnson won.
Gordon extended his points lead to 28 over Jeff Burton. Johnson moved to third, 60 behind Gordon.
Had Gordon wrecked Johnson, this could have unraveled the chemistry of both teams; they work out of the same shop and have the same employees working on both cars.
"We've been in situations where the role was reversed," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "It's painful. It's going to be painful for Steve. It's going to be painful for Jeff.
"That doesn't mean the books are going to be closed or the doors are going to get shut."
The books were open so wide this weekend that Knaus went to Letarte and got the entire setup of Gordon's car after Johnson was last in Saturday's first practice.
"The team has to believe in the concept," Hendrick said.
Hendrick, through past experience, will let his drivers cool off for a day or so before talking to them about what happened. Neither Johnson nor Gordon anticipated there will be a problem, although Johnson sounded more convincing.
"Next time, I'll have to be a little more aggressive if that's the way it's going to happen," Gordon said.
Hendrick, who has won four consecutive races on two other occasions, understands.
"Nobody wants to run second to anybody," he said. "That's a good thing. Tomorrow morning, we'll look at the points and we'll say it was a good weekend."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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