Commentary

Pressure to win at all costs upped for likes of Gordon, Stewart

The new Chase format may have the effect NASCAR desired. Watkins Glen saw a wild finish as the pressure to win outweighed the need to finish well, writes David Newton.

Updated: August 13, 2007, 2:43 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Jeff Gordon disappeared into his hauler as quickly as he disappeared from the lead with two laps remaining in Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

Ten minutes.

Twenty minutes.

Forty minutes passed before the four-time Cup champion emerged to discuss his unprovoked spinout that sent Tony Stewart to his third win in four races.

He was mad, to say the least.

"I was trying to regroup and think about it," Gordon said. "It's going to eat me up for a little while, and I'll get over it and go back racing."

While Gordon was upset about giving up the win, he was more upset about giving the 10 bonus points that go with the win to Stewart.

So instead of potentially entering the championship chase in five weeks with a 20-point lead over Stewart, Gordon has only a 10-point advantage that could shrink even more between now and New Hampshire.

"Right now, it's hard to think of it as the difference in the championship, but it could be," Gordon said.

This is what NASCAR wanted when it tweaked the system to have the 12 drivers in the Chase start with the same number of points and then award 10 bonus points for each win collected during the first 26 races.

Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson have four wins, or 40 points. Stewart has three wins, or 30 points. Nobody else has more than one victory.

So instead of cruising toward the playoffs and settling for top-10s, drivers such as Gordon and Stewart are going all-out for wins.

That's why Carl Edwards, who has one victory, drove through the final turn trying to get close enough to Stewart to make a pass. He went from a sure second to eighth, but it didn't matter.

"You know, it shows the significance of how important those 10 points are," Stewart said. "…Running second here to me or Carl didn't mean anything. It was all about winning because we want those extra 10 points.

"So if you're solidly in the top [12] right now, I mean, second [place], you might as well kiss your aunt with the hairy mustache; not something you really cared about. Don't act like you guys don't have an aunt like that, either."

Stewart laughed. Everybody at the postrace press conference laughed.

Gordon wasn't laughing. He knows this could hurt his quest for a fifth championship if the title comes down to him and Stewart, as recent performance suggests could happen.

When asked if he was more upset about not getting the trophy or the points, his initial reaction was "the bonus points."

A few seconds later, he changed his mind. Or at least said he did. Perhaps he was thinking ahead, thinking the initial comment made him sound as though he is worried about Stewart.

"I probably would have rather had the trophy than the bonus points," Gordon said. "I think we can beat him in the final 10 races, whether we're ahead or behind in the bonus points."

Mind games already? Perhaps.

Gordon can afford to play any kind of game with a 344-point lead over second-place Denny Hamlin and a 432-point lead over third-place Matt Kenseth.

He knows he'll be racing for a championship this season, something everybody from 10th-place Kevin Harvick through 15th-place Greg Biffle can't say.

That's why Harvick's initial reaction to Juan Pablo Montoya was so harsh -- there was finger-pointing, shoving and a few choice words not used in Sunday school -- before he realized Martin Truex Jr. actually bumped Montoya to start the crash that also collected Harvick's teammate Jeff Burton.

The 36th-place finish trimmed Harvick's cushion between him and Ryan Newman in 13th to 222 points. While that appears safe, so did Gordon's win with two laps remaining.

That's why Dale Earnhardt Jr. was so down after a blown engine while running third dropped him to 14th place, 100 points behind No. 12 Kurt Busch.

But that's not why Gordon, who became the first driver to clinch a spot in the Chase, was upset.

Tony Stewart
So if you're solidly in the top [12] right now, I mean, second [place], you might as well kiss your aunt with the hairy mustache; not something you really cared about. Don't act like you guys don't have an aunt like that, either.

Tony Stewart

"I hate to act coy like that," said Gordon, who was in the unenviable position of battling for a playoff spot a couple of years ago. "But I'm sorry, we're in a different position than other guys are. It's about trying to win races, get bonus points and get ourselves ready for that Chase.

"It's an interesting battle for 10th, 11th and 12th. I know that's a story, but it's not our story."

Gordon's story is about putting as much distance between his team and the rest of the top 12 when the Chase begins.

Stewart's story is about closing that gap.

In five weeks, though, the story will change.

"The thing is, you definitely can't make those mistakes in the Chase," Gordon said. "I probably mentally push myself harder [now] because I know points are not on the line. It's more about the win.

"In the Chase, I'll make sure we don't make those kinds of mistakes."

Meanwhile, he needs a few days to cool off.

"Actually, I'm so angry right now," said Gordon, who may have cost himself another win this year at Texas when he brushed the wall while leading. "I told the guys the last time I made a mistake like this I'll make it up to them.

"I plan on doing that again."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

ALSO SEE