Gordon's frustration hits boiling point
He was mad that the final caution came when he was about a hundred yards from taking the white flag and winning in regulation. He was mad that Matt Kenseth slammed into the rear of his No. 24 car on the first lap of the green-white-checkered finish to end any chance he had of winning at all.
He was mad that NASCAR even called the final caution that forced overtime.
You might have missed that last one in the emotion of Hamlin's late charge, the winner's postrace talk about his torn ACL (which is scheduled for surgery on Wednesday) and Gordon's tirade against Kenseth.
But the four-time champion may have been madder at NASCAR than anything. Since he couldn't slam the governing body into the wall like he slammed Kenseth to make sure he didn't win, he took a pointed shot at officials in his postrace press conference.
"It was pretty obvious to me NASCAR wanted to do a green-white-checkered finish," Gordon said. "There were cars blowing tires, hitting the wall ... they weren't throwing the caution.
"One spinout and they threw the caution in the blink of an eye. I think it was pretty obvious what they wanted."
Welcome to the new world of manufactured excitement.
Since NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton said "have at it, boys," hoping to encourage drivers to show more aggressiveness and emotion, three of six races have ended in green-white-checkered finishes. There should be a lot more as the season progresses and drivers continue to up the level of aggression without consequences.
The drivers understand they can take more chances than ever thanks to the rule that gives them three shots instead of one at finishing under green. They know they might significantly improve their position as Dale Earnhardt Jr. did at Daytona and Atlanta, which had two green-white-checkered finishes.
It's the equivalent of double-overtime games in the NCAA tournament, but this version of March Madness lasts from February to November.
"You've got to go with what their decisions are," Gordon said. "It's a Monday race. A lot of fans came out here, so certainly a great finish for them. Just unfortunate it took away from an opportunity for us because we definitely had that win had that caution not come out there at the end."
Gordon doesn't throw stuff out there for the heck of it. He's usually calculated with anything he says to the media.
This sounded calculated, or at least well thought out.
NASCAR won't ever admit it wanted a green-white-checkered finish instead of a ho-hum win by Gordon, who was leading because he didn't pit when race dominator Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, did with about seven laps remaining.
Officials will tell you the caution came out quicker for Busch's spinout on the next-to-last lap than for the two earlier incidents -- when Elliott Sadler spun out and Marcos Ambrose got into the wall -- because the idle 18 car posed a greater safety concern.
Gordon obviously doesn't buy that.
He even may raise an eyebrow that it was Hamlin's teammate who brought out the final caution, but he didn't mention that one so we won't press the issue.
Kerry Tharp, NASCAR's director of communications for competition, indicated the reason for that last caution was clear.
"The caution was displayed because the No. 18 car got into the wall and was coming back down into the racing groove," Tharp wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. "Period."
As much as you understand Gordon's frustration, you have to admit the finish was spectacular. The end of almost every race this season has had some sort of drama -- from Earnhardt's charging to second behind Jamie McMurray at Daytona, to Carl Edwards' sending Brad Keselowski into an aerial backflip that shook up the order at Atlanta, to Jimmie Johnson's great moves when he went from sixth to first in three laps for the win at Bristol, to Monday's race delayed a day by rain.
It was pretty obvious to me NASCAR wanted to do a green-white-checkered finish. There were cars blowing tires, hitting the wall ... they weren't throwing the caution. One spinout and they threw the caution in the blink of an eye. I think it was pretty obvious what they wanted.” -- Jeff Gordon
Some of it was manufactured by "have at it, boys," some of it by double-file restarts that were implemented last season, and some of it by multiple green-white-checkered restarts that were implemented before this season. Whether or not NASCAR wanted a green-white-checkered finish at Martinsville is debatable, but there's no denying all the tweaks are creating the desired excitement.
Unfortunately for Gordon, he's been on the short end of the excitement twice. He finished third at Las Vegas because he took two tires on the final pit stop while Johnson took four.
He finished third again on Monday after seemingly outsmarting Hamlin by not pitting.
That is frustrating, sometimes maddening for a driver who has 82 career wins. It is more frustrating since it's been 35 races, almost an entire season, since Gordon has been to Victory Lane.
Crew chief Steve Letarte did his best to refocus his driver, saying, "We're going to win a bunch. Just do what you're doing."
Gordon did calm down. He even flashed that Hollywood smile a few times as he stood on pit road with the other three drivers who finished behind Hamlin. He understood from a big-picture scenario it was a good day, that he moved up four spots in the points to seventh.
But Gordon wants to win. He wants to win badly, and that showed painfully as he watched Hamlin take the checkered.
It showed again as he bowed his head after glancing at the media center television where Hamlin was celebrating in Victory Lane.
"It's frustrating," Gordon said. "The most frustrating thing is we were coming off here to take the white and all we had to do is get to that line, and a hundred feet from it that caution comes out.
"That's how quick and easy things can change in this sport. You know, it's something that I'll laugh about tomorrow."
He probably did.
But he made his point first.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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