- Mike Massaro
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Slowly, Robby Gordon walked the course. He mentally measured the straightaways and studied every turn. Right. Left. Throttle, throttle, throttle. Brake, brake, brake, left, right, left. Every detail was critical and he wasn't taking any of it lightly.
No, it wasn't Infineon Raceway or Watkins Glen. It was Victory Lane Karting Center -- a quarter-mile, indoor go-kart track in Charlotte, N.C.
Occasionally, members of the racing community gather there for a mid week tension reliever. For most it's just mindless fun. But for Robby Gordon, it's anything but mindless.
It was during one of these hot lap sessions two years ago that I noticed -- dare I say -- the cerebral side of Gordon. He saw things that are seemingly undetectable to the untrained human eye. Gordon dissected that quarter-mile road course like Bill Parcells breaks down an offense.
Where it was basic instinct to attack the track, he used finesse. Where most were timid, he was fearless. Suffice to say, we were slow and he was fast.
Gordon used this same approach to beat NASCAR's best in both road course races in 2003. Now, as the NASCAR Nextel Cup series readies for its first road race of 2004 at the 1.99-mile, 10-turn Infineon Raceway, Gordon heads a very short list of favorites.
"I think that's a compliment that everyone is gunning for me and that probably makes it harder," said Gordon. "When everybody knows that that car is going to be the toughest car to beat, they seem to put that car in as many awkward positions as they can."
Nothing could have been more awkward for Gordon, however, than standing in victory lane after his Sonoma win last year as his peers relentlessly criticized him. To refresh your memory, Gordon bypassed his teammate Kevin Harvick under caution moving from fifth to fourth with 39 laps to go. While legal, the move was seen as a breach of a long-standing gentleman's agreement discouraging passing under yellow.
For a year now, Robby has shrugged off the comments. He certainly never gave back the trophy and has never made any apologies for the maneuver.
"We didn't win that race because we passed on the yellow last year," asserted Gordon, who dominated, leading 81 of 110 laps. "We set the fastest race laps. We controlled the race."
While some, perhaps even most, say the pass was unethical, an argument can be made that it was justified. During the pre-race driver's meeting Gordon asked, not once but twice, if it was "legal" to pass under yellow. The answer, both times, was yes.
"All the drivers looked at me like I had three eyes," said Gordon. "But the key is I asked the question twice, I understood what the rules were, and I played those rules to my advantage."
At Infineon Raceway drivers need to be creative to be successful. In the last 12 races here, the winner has started inside the top-five 10 times. The furthest back any eventual winner has started was 13th (Davey Allison, 1991). It's hardly passer's paradise.
Still, Gordon knows how to navigate changing elevations and combinations of sweeping and tight turns. Rights, lefts, shifting and braking are second nature to Gordon, who sharpened his skills winning multiple SCORE off-road championships and Baja 1000 events. For him it's like being in the zone.
"When I drive road courses I put everything in like slow motion," explains Gordon. "You would probably be surprised how I drive the car. It's all very slow, non-quick movements and the biggest thing is not spinning the tires."
Spinning was a problem for Gordon last week in Michigan. Unfortunately for him it wasn't just the tires. After rear-ending Brendan Gaughan on the first lap Gordon spun, making for a long day and a disappointing 33rd-place finish.
"I put myself in that position (at Michigan) and came back with a big goose egg," added Gordon after slipping from 18th to 20th in the standings. "It doesn't matter who checked up or what happened. I put myself in that position to get wrecked and that's what I'm mad about."
Gordon hopes last week's disappointment translates to a wake up call for the team. They're now 666 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson and 10 positions removed from a transfer spot to the late season "Chase for the Nextel Cup."
If Gordon is going to qualify to be a championship contender in the season's 10-race finale, he can ill afford a bad performance this week. Which is one reason why the team used a testing session here.
"We think we learned some stuff that maybe we missed a little last year where we'll be able to keep the tires on the back a little longer and hopefully still put us in a position to win the race," said Gordon.
During that test however, the team blew an engine. And while Gordon is concerned that may lead the team to be conservative this weekend he remains confident.
"I think success breeds success," Gordon said. "Going to Infineon, being as competitive as we've been the last couple of years, it doesn't matter what car it is, has us all jacked up. We're excited about it."
And he should be. Like the quarter-mile go-kart track in Charlotte, this is a place where he sees all the angles. Last year Gordon worked within the gray area and found a way to win. You can expect he'll try to do the same thing Sunday. Well, not exactly the same thing. Those rules have since been changed and unless you've completely ignored the last month of the season you know there is no more passing under caution.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
Robby Gordon attacks corners in a different manner than most Nextel Cup drivers. At Sonoma, it will pay off.