'Home race' could help driver No. 31

Updated: September 2, 2004, 6:01 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

Robby Gordon
Robby Gordon's homecoming could be happier, but the Southern California native never lacks for optimism.

And he can use some heading into the Pop Secret 500 at California Speedway. Yes, as NASCAR embarks upon a new tradition for Labor Day weekend, Gordon is one driver who probably won't mind being in Southern California instead of competing in the Southern 500 in Darlington.

Of course, what he'd really like is to be battling for a spot in the Chase For The Nextel Cup. And when he left Fontana, Calif., back in May he was still convinced that would be the case. Of course, the month of May was a period full of possibilities for Gordon.

Not only was he coming off a solid 12th-place finish in the Auto Club 500, he was also gearing up for the Indianapolis 500 with his own team. The sky was the limit in May, but things have changed since then.

Returning home 22nd in points, the Chase is but a dream. And unless he knows more than he's telling, Gordon isn't sure what his NASCAR career holds for 2005. Gordon has options, though, which is why his irrepressible optimism doesn't allow him to focus on the negatives. Instead, he sees things turning in the right direction as the Nextel Cup season begins its home stretch.

"[The team] I had a great run the last time we were in Fontana," Gordon says. "We just fell a little short on gas, but still managed to walk away with a pretty good finish. Getting robbed like that at the end of the race because of an empty gas tank was hard on us so I am pretty sure we will be watching the gas mileage very closely this time. It was a tough finish because we were a front contender a good majority of the May race."

Gordon never led, but did finish on the lead lap. It wasn't easy, but he headed home believing the team was making strides.

"I almost felt like a yo-yo at one point [during the race], because it was like we were up and down all day going back and forth between tight and loose [handling conditions]," Gordon says. "It seemed like we would finally hit the mark and the car would really seem to be coming to me, then out of the nowhere it would just get crazy tight again."

Unlike the May event, this race will begin in the heat of day and end as night begins to fall on the two-mile oval, meaning finding the proper setup may be tougher than usual. Crew chief Chris Andrews hopes taking a newer car will help Gordon.

"It sounds kind of funny, but I guess you could say we're taking the twins to California," Andrews says. "We're taking the same car (Chassis No. 103) that we raced in May [as the backup car]. Chassis No. 106 is going to be the primary car and is basically a duplicate of 103, except 106 is newer and ran well at Indy and Michigan [last month]. If you look the two over, they look exactly the same so we refer to them as the twins."

Gordon isn't responsible for building the cars at Richard Childress Racing, but he was back in 2000 when he returned to Cup with a team he co-owned and directed. Still, Gordon ran just 17 races that year and 17 in '01, when he was hired by RCR late in the season.

Last time we were in Fontana, we were just 20 points outside of the cut-off for the championship chase. We are a little bit more outside The Chase now, but 11th place still isn't out of reach for us, yet. That $1 million bonus for 11th place is still within reach.
-- Robby Gordon on his new goal

Considered something of a maverick from his days driving for Felix Sabates, there are those who never expected Gordon to remain this long at RCR. But the 35-year-old has settled down and believes he's proved a few critics wrong along the way.

"I think I've shown a lot of consistency," Gordon says. "I'll have driven for the same team now for three-and-a-half years by the time we're done with this year and I think my career needed that. I think I've shown stability and driven for one of the top teams in NASCAR."

Childress has said repeatedly that he enjoys working with Gordon, but hasn't issued a vote of confidence, either.

"Robby Gordon's a great race driver and a lot of fun to be around," is about all Childress will says. "Right now, he's an RCR driver and we're going to see what's up for next year."

Childress won't announce his plans for Gordon's No. 31 team until October, leading to speculation Gordon could be out of the picture. His contract is up after the season and while Gordon's great with sponsors, it's possible either Childress or Cingular will decide to make a move for a driver higher up in the point standings if one's available.

The again, Childress and Gordon may simply be keeping the decision to remain together under wraps to get Cingular more bang for its buck in October. Gordon, though, admits he's not satisfied with his results this year.

"We have had some really good race cars this year," Gordon says. "It's frustrating at times, but you make some of your own luck and then we have things [like Indianapolis] happen when you're in position [for a top-five finish]."

Instead, a flat tire ruined Gordon's day and left him a disheartened 22nd.

"To hope and dream is one thing and reality's another," Gordon says. "But we have been competitive. As long as we're capable of running in the top 10, I stay excited. If we're not capable of running in the top 10, you just try to get as many points as you can."

If Gordon and RCR part ways, he could move to another team, or attempt to start his own Cup program again. He currently runs a limited schedule with his own Busch Series team and has been quite competitive. Still, Gordon knows that's not quite the same as owning a Cup team.

"But there's still capable [Busch] teams out there," Gordon says. "Some of the best [Cup] teams in the sport compete in the Busch level and we have been able to compete with them week in and week out, so that part's been fun."

And Gordon's learned a lot since 2000 and thinks he's better prepared to run a Cup team now if it comes to that.

"If we do that again we'd definitely have a lot more knowledge," Gordon says. "But I don't know what I'm doing, honestly. I can look you in the eye and say I have no idea what we're gonna do next year. I'm fortunate enough that there are good rides out there available and I think that this ride's still available to me."

A strong run this weekend certainly couldn't hurt Gordon's chances of remaining with RCR. And while he won't be chasing the championship, he's still hoping for a late-season surge.

"Last time we were in Fontana, we were just 20 points outside of the cut-off for the championship chase," Gordon says. "We are a little bit more outside The Chase now, but 11th place still isn't out of reach for us, yet. That $1 million bonus for 11th place is still within reach."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.