Beyond The Low Water Mark
DARLINGTON, S.C. (August 31)- - The Spinning Frustration Summer Tour of 2003 made its way to Darlington Raceway for the Southern 500. And once again, Jeff Gordon was involved in a crash which relegated him to a poor finish. A mid-race wreck in turn three after contact entering the corner sent the DuPont Chevrolet to the garage with extensive damage to the front and rear of the car. Gordon struggled with handling issues throughout the event making a charge up to fifth on lap 81 mainly due to gaining positions on pit road during a caution flag pit stop. He slipped out of the top-ten just after lap 100 and fell as low as 20th on lap 140 battling a loose condition in turns one and two, and a tight issue in turns three and four. After a caution flag pit stop on lap 149, Gordon moved up to 16th in the running order. He was running on the outside of Casey Mears entering turn three when Mears drifted up the track to get a better entry in the corner. However, Mears had not cleared Gordon's car and the pair made contact. Gordon spun sideways and collected Mears, Dave Blaney, and Johnny Benson before coming down the track to make front end contact with Kenny Wallace's passing car. He drove the battered car to the garage area and stared down the barrel of his most frustrating summer in more than a decade. "It's frustrating right now with the way things are going but we were having a frustrating day because the car wasn't working well," Gordon said. "Casey Mears is a good friend of mine but he needs a spotter. I don't know what he was thinking. I was on the outside of him, he's a lapped car, and he just turned right into me. There's a whole heck of a lot broken (on the car) now." He returned to race 46 laps down and finished in 32nd position. Gordon pulled behind the wall with two laps remaining giving him 4 DNF's in the past 6 races. "It's been a rough month," Gordon said of his plight over the past six weeks. "It hasn't been a lot of fun out there lately. It's beyond frustrating and I can't wait to get August over and get into September." On the upside, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte returned to victory lane for the first time in more than four years. Twenty-three years after winning his first career race in the 1980 Southern 500, Labonte won the final Labor Day weekend Southern 500 event. It also marked the first time that four different Hendrick Motorsports drivers visited victory lane in the same season.
NEW YORK, N.Y. (August 28)- - The sound of the ARCA cars on the track could be heard throughout the garage area as Robbie Loomis finished making the final adjustments to Jeff Gordon's car following the Saturday practice at Pocono Raceway in late July. In the late stages of the ARCA race, 18-year-old Kyle Busch, the newest prodigy at Hendrick Motorsports, crashed into the fronstretch wall trying to pass ARCA veteran Ron Cox. The younger brother of Winston Cup star Kurt Busch had been knocked out of a race he felt he should have won. Back in the garage area, he surveyed the damage on his wrecked car and set out to have some words with Cox's crew chief. Loomis spotted the young driver and knew where Busch was headed. He quickly caught up to Busch and wrapped his arms around him to prohibit forward movement and a made-for-TV shouting match that would have ensued in Cox's pit area. "Calm down.. let it go," Loomis said as they walked back to the garage area. "Ron Cox wrecked me for no reason," Busch said later. "I had the fastest car on the track, and he couldn't deal with it. But someday I'll be up in Winston Cup, and he'll still be a nobody." (SI)
BRISTOL, TN. (August 24)- - Les jeux sont faites. When Jeff Gordon brought his damaged car behind the wall late in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, the DuPont crew looked at the damage and determined it was beyond repair. With a 532 point deficit to Matt Kenseth, Gordon's title hopes are also likely damaged beyond repair. In the past six races, he has five finishes of 24th or worse. In addition, he has three DNF's in the past five events. Gordon appeared to have one of the strongest cars at Bristol leading from the pole position. He lost the top spot on a round of pit stops but made his way through traffic and took the runner-up spot after knocking Ryan Newman into a spin on lap 75. Gordon regained the lead on lap 81 from Jeff Green and pulled away. On lap 163 he lost the lead on pit road but retook the position on lap 193. He led until a round of pit stops under caution on lap 222 where he came off pit road in fourth position. From there his evening took a downward turn. Gordon battled a tight handling car in race traffic and dropped to 10th. He made a pit stop for tires under caution on lap 255 which set him back to 18th on the track. Gordon's final pit stop came on lap 344 and was a fuel only stop since he had come in for tires during a previous caution on lap 306. He restarted in third position and remained there while Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick battled for the race lead. On lap 421 Gordon slowed on the track due to a flat tire. He caught a break when the caution flag came out for debris on the track which allowed him to stop under caution and not lose a lap. He restarted in 16th place with 73 laps remaining and began making a charge on fresh tires. He moved up to 12th on lap 439 but trouble came five laps later. After Ken Schrader cut a tire and slowed coming off turn four, Gordon checked up and tried to move low to get around Schrader. Matt Kenseth, directly behind Gordon, couldn't get out of the throttle in time and hit the rear of Gordon's Chevrolet. The chain reaction crash sent Gordon sliding into the frontstretch wall. With the front end smashed and the radiator leaking fluid, Gordon went behind the wall and registered another disappointing finish in the summer of his discontent. At the front of the field, Busch took the lead from Harvick on lap 380 and pulled away to sweep the Bristol races in 2003. It was Busch's eighth career victory, and third win at Bristol in the past four races.
Hard To Find A Friend
BROOKLYN, MI. (August 18)- - The summer of Jeff Gordon's discontent continued with a frustrating 30th place finish in the GFS 400 at Michigan Speedway. The inability to make up a lap over the final 300 miles made the afternoon an uphill struggle. Gordon started 21st and made progress up to 17th by lap 40. However, the kill switch in his car malfunctioned on lap 41 and he lost ten positions before getting back to full speed. Ten laps later he felt a tire going down and came to pit road. After returning to the race one lap down, the caution came out on lap 55 for debris on the track which trapped him one lap down. Throughout the day he lined up on the inside lane on restarts trying to get the lap back. However, he wasn't strong enough to stay ahead of the leaders. His best opportunity to make up the lap came when Bobby Labonte's engine blew on lap 141. Gordon, running directly behind race leader Kevin Harvick, tried to make up the distance to get back on the lead lap. However, Harvick stayed in the throttle to keep Gordon one lap in arrears. On lap 150 he restarted in front of the leaders-- on the tail end of the lead lap-- but couldn't hold off Kurt Busch. In the closing stages he pitted for fuel and finished two laps down in 30th. At the front of the field, Ryan Newman passed Busch for the lead with two laps remaining and won his sixth career race. After Busch ran out of fuel on the white flag lap, Harvick finished second followed by Tony Stewart in third. Combined with Matt Kenseth's ninth place finish, Gordon dropped to 461 points behind Kenseth as his championship hopes for 2003 have evaporated in the summer heat. Finishes of 24th, 36th, 4th, 33rd, and 30th in the past five races have all but sealed his fate.
New York Road Rage
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (August 11)- - Jeff Gordon looked at the Watkins Glen race as a prime opportunity to gain ground in the points standings. He tested at the track in late July and won the pole position for the race with a new track record on Friday. However, the race would prove to be an uphill endeavor which culminated in an unmitigated disaster. Heading into the first turn on lap 1, Greg Biffle locked up his brakes battling Mark Martin side by side and hit the right rear of Gordon's Chevrolet sending him into a spin. He stayed in the throttle during the spin and kept the car out of the gravel pit. "I got a great jump and went down into turn one," Gordon said after the race. "It's the first lap, there's no reason to blast the thing down in there. I don't know if Biffle was racing (Martin) and they both drove in there real hard or what happened. He just blasted me." Gordon rejoined the race in 43rd position-- hardly the start he expected. As the day progressed, Gordon made his way through race traffic driving with a sense of urgency as the laps clicked away. He moved up to 23rd by lap 19 and was up to 13th just twenty laps later. The complexion of the race changed on lap 50 when Rusty Wallace got off course to bring out a caution flag. A number of drivers came to pit road before the caution to allow them to restart ahead of drivers who pitted under caution. Dale Earnhardt Jr was leading at the time of the caution, but couldn't take advantage of the situation. Robby Gordon was able to make his final pit stop before the caution waved to give him valuable track position for the restart. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon was mired back in 24th after the field was shuffled due to the timing of the caution. He made his way into the top-10 with 22 laps remaining and passed Earnhardt Jr for the fifth position with 11 laps to go. With seven laps remaining, he closed in on Kevin Harvick for third and took the position with a bump pass in turn nine. Gordon closed in on Scott Pruett for the runner-up spot with two laps remaining but lost fuel pressure heading into turn one on the final lap. Earnhardt Jr passed Gordon for position soonafter. "(The team) told me I was good to go all the way on fuel and I wasn't," Gordon said. "I ran out a lap early and I started saving fuel on that last lap. Dale Jr had a run on me and I was just trying to get out of his way. He hit me and luckily I held it straight." He made his way around and coasted off turn 11. At the front of the field, Robby Gordon outdistanced Pruett to score his second win of the season and sweep the road course races in 2003. Kevin Harvick, battling Jimmie Johnson for fourth place, hit Gordon from behind sending the DuPont Chevrolet spinning sideways into the inside guardrail. Since the car was out of fuel, Gordon was unable to restart the engine and was credited with a 33rd place finish, the lowest of his career at Watkins Glen. A hard fought top five finish was ruined less than 500 feet from the finish line. "It's our fault for running out of gas but (Harvick) was fighting a little bit too hard, because it was easy to pass me," Gordon said. "I was just trying to coast back to the line and he thinks I'm racing for position. It sucked that I ran out of fuel and the car stopped. All he had to do was drive right by me- it's pretty simple." Harvick contended that Gordon was in the racing groove and contact was unavoidable. "You come to the checkered (flag) and he runs out of gas. I got into the back of him and he's zigging and zagging and I gassed it up again and spun him out," Harvick said. "There wasn't much I could do about it. Usually when you're out of gas, you get out of the racing groove." It was Gordon's second DNF in the past three races. His sense of frustration heightened by a delayed response from the "local track safety crew" and an obligatory post-race ambulance ride that became a traffic jam fiasco. "A hundred people could have gotten there before they got there," Gordon said of the safety crew. He dropped 396 points behind Matt Kenseth who finished eighth at Watkins Glen. As far as championship hopes for 2003, this race might have been the dagger.
Pole Position At Watkins Glen
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (August 9)- - After testing at the Watkins Glen International road course in late July, Jeff Gordon was certain of one thing: the track record would fall in qualifying for the Sirius at the Glen as a half dozen drivers broke the track record in the test session. During Friday's qualifying round at the 2.45-mile road course, Gordon's lap of 124.58 miles per hour shattered Dale Jarrett's two year old track record by nearly three miles per hour. In all, 18 drivers broke the previous track record with Gordon leading the way. After his lap, Gordon waited in his transporter hoping the rain would hold off. Had rain cancelled the session, the field would have been set by the owner's points standings. "I've never felt so much tension and drama because of the rain," Gordon said. "I was just afraid it was going to rain. But what a great effort by this team. I couldn't be more proud of everyone who has worked to pick up our pace from the last couple of races we've had here. We came up here and tested and it paid off. Last week at Indianapolis was one of the most frustrating qualifying days we ever had. I had hoped that the test we did up here, because we didn't test at Indy, would pay off and it certainly has." He'll line up alongside Greg Biffle to begin Sunday's race with Mark Martin and Tony Stewart sharing the second row. It was Gordon's second pole position of the season and 44th of his career. "Everywhere we go track position is important," Gordon said. "But on a road course it's the most important. It's very hard to pass because of the length of the track and the cars get spread out. The pit strategy is just so much different here. You go until you have to come in. Let's just hope that fuel mileage isn't an issue and we can go out and race real hard. Sitting on the pole is half the battle. Now we have to get it going for the race." In addition, Gordon has an outside chance of becoming the second active Winston Cup driver to acquire a career-high 15,000 laps led, second only to Rusty Wallace who has 19,313. To reach the 15,000 laps led milestone, he'll need to pace the field for at least 83 of the 90 laps on Sunday. Since he began racing at The Glen in Winston Cup racing, Gordon has led 160 laps there. He also leads the series in laps led this season with 900. "Leading 160 laps sounds a lot easier than it is, especially on a road course," Gordon said. "Over time, we've gained the confidence to lead laps and win. However, it is not about leading 83 laps but about leading one- the one at the end. Each week, we don't focus on improving our stats, just on staying near the top of the Winston Cup point standings. But to reach 15,000 laps led says more about the race team than anything. They've overcome every obstacle in an effort to stay up front and they deserve that mark of achievement." Though he finished fourth at Indianapolis last weekend, Gordon lost 10 points in the series standings to Matt Kenseth who finished an impressive second to race winner Kevin Harvick. In the past three races, Gordon has lost 153 points to Kenseth and trails by a total of 318 points. Though Kenseth has been consistently in the top-10 this season, there are a few areas the competition can exploit. "There's been a few weaknesses, the road courses being one of them," Gordon said of Kenseth's team. "We did gain a lot on them in Sonoma and we want to do the same here. We feel like road courses are areas where we can capitalize and make some gains."
Satisfaction At Indy
SPEEDWAY, IN. (August 4)- - While Kevin Harvick pulled into victory lane after winning the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon exited his car content with a moral victory after staging a late race rally to finish fourth. Gordon, who spent his high school years in nearby Pittsboro, struggled through the three practice sessions during the race weekend. He qualified 19th but battled handling issues throughout the final practice session on Saturday. The DuPont crew made significant changes to the car on Sunday morning and crossed their fingers. From the outset, it appeared as if they made all the right moves as Gordon moved into the top-ten by lap 12. Throughout the day Gordon ran between eighth and 15th battling race traffic. Gordon made his final pit stop for two tires under caution with 21 laps remaining and restarted in fifth position. He passed Robby Gordon for fourth place with four laps remaining to post what amounted to a solid finish on the historic track. "It was a fight," Gordon said of his day at the Brickyard. "I told the team before the race started that we were going to fight until that checkered flag. I'm so proud of the effort that was put out. It was a miserable weekend for us until we got that fourth place finish. That makes for a great birthday for me. I know we didn't get any points on (Matt) Kenseth but that was championship form as far as I'm concerned. From the type of weekend we had, we struggled so much. We were 40th fastest in practice yesterday. When you have confidence in your team and they have confidence in you, it makes a big difference. Those guys changed everything on that race car, came back with basically a brand new race car today, and it just drove to the front. We still struggled though. There was one time I got really loose. We made some adjustments and some great calls. I couldn't be more proud of Robbie Loomis on that last call to come in and get two tires." Race winner Harvick became the first pole winner to win the Brickyard 400. He took the lead from Jamie McMurray with 16 laps remaining and never looked back. Tony Stewart led the most laps in the race but finished 12th after getting mired in race traffic due to a late race pit stop. While Harvick's first career victory at Atlanta will likely be his most memorable since it came less than one month after Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001, it is his Brickyard win that has instantly become his greatest career accomplishment.
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