Taking The Blame

LOUDON, N.H. - - On lap 130 of the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, Jeff Gordon came onto pit road during a caution period in fourth place. Crew chief Robbie Loomis called for a routine four tire change. As Gordon approached his pit stall, he dove to the inside of Michael Waltrip hoping to pick up some time and maybe beat Waltrip off of pit road. However, Waltrip's pit stall came before Gordon's on pit road. In the span of a split second, Gordon's decision to dive to the inside of Waltrip turned out to be one of the biggest mental mistakes of his racing career. After skidding to a stop to avoid Waltrip's car, he slid between the stalls of Waltrip and Jimmie Johnson. Three of Johnson's crew members-- Chris Anderson, Ryan McCray, and Cory Quick-- were stuck by Gordon's Chevrolet. McCray and Quick slammed into the windshield of the car. However, all three were able to get up and walk away from the incident. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates returned to the race at the tail end of the lead lap but both would recover to be in a position to finish 1-2 at the end of the day. It was not to be as Gordon's crew miscalculated a late race pit stop for fuel and Gordon ran out with two laps remaining.

Nevertheless, as disappointing as a 19th place finish was, Gordon's thoughts after the race were solely on his pit road mistake. "I've never felt so horrible driving a race car as I did today," Gordon said. "Not only hitting crew members, but it was my fault. I made a mistake. To see guys who are on my team fly up over your hood... it's not a real good feeling." An emotional Gordon made his way to victory lane to congratulate Johnson and to check on the status of the crew members-- all walked away without injury. "I couldn't be more proud of those guys to come back the way they did and to get to victory lane," Gordon said. "I thought we were going to be 1-2 and we just didn't get enough fuel."

It's been a frustrating summer for Gordon who has just two finishes higher than 19th in the past nine races. "We just can't get anything to go our way," he lamented. "We're the ones making the mistakes. I made one and the other one we just didn't get enough fuel. It's a tough day."

Following the pit road incident, Gordon's focus turned from the race to the status of his employees. Continuing with the race was an arduous task. "It's so difficult," Gordon said. "I wanted to jump out of the car and go see if they were OK. Then I saw them get up and go around to pit the car. I thought 'we've got some tough guys on this team.' That's really awesome to see that they got up." This was the second pit road incident in six weeks where crew members were hit by a race car. At Indianapolis, Dale Jarrett spun entering pit road and hit his jackman John Bryan.

After he made contact with the crew members, Gordon's car was sideways on pit road as positions were lost. "I didn't know what to do," Gordon said. "I didn't know whether to back up. I saw cars going by me. I was just stunned by the whole thing. It was my fault. I had no idea Michael was pitting in front of Jimmie. I probably shouldn't have been shooting in there anyway. But where my pit stall was, I wouldn't have made my turn in much later than that. I just didn't know Michael was in there. It's my own fault."

While safety innovations have helped to protect crew members on pit road, it is still a dangerous working environment. "You see a lot more drivers pitted down at the beginning of pit road and there's a reason for that," Gordon said. "There's not a disadvantage down there like there is in some of the other stalls. We went where there was an opening. That's pretty much what Jimmie did too, and that was the first opening that we could pick."

Despite the advantageous pit stall location, there is still a premium placed on gaining positions on pit road. "I've seen guys that speed up-- that pull inside guys and shoot in there," Gordon said. "I don't know if NASCAR says that's OK, but we do it all the time and they don't do anything about it. So until (NASCAR) starts doing some different things on pit road, we're all going to take it to the limits and take advantage of every situation we can. Hopefully incidents like this will change the way we run down pit road."

NASCAR mandated pit road changes following the death of Michael Ritch on pit road in 1991. Ritch, a tire changer on Bill Elliott's team, was struck by the spinning car of Ricky Rudd. Pit road speed limits were later instituted to slow the cars down in the area around the crew members. In 2001, a pit road collision at Homestead-Miami Speedway injured several of Rudd's crewmen when Ward Burton made contact with another car on pit road. Helmets were made mandatory for all over-the-wall crew members. Both the speed limit and the safety gear likely contributed to Johnson's crew members walking away with only bruises at Loudon.

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