Saturday, May 01, 2010

SPORTS >> Race rivals see reverse of old roles

Leader sportswriter

The battle for supremacy at Hendrick Motorsports is starting to get ugly.

For the past two weekends, four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson, who also holds four cup titles, have butted heads on the track. It’s like the rivalry between “Days of Thunder” characters Cole Trickle and Russ Wheeler all over again, only this time, it’s not fictional.

It began two weeks ago with a dustup in Texas that gave Johnson a flat left rear tire and took him out of contention. Of course, both parties came before the media spotlight at Talladega last weekend and professed their undying love and admiration for each other, only to get out on the track and have another incident.

Not everyone understood the dynamics at the time when Gordon got a run on the inside with five laps to go in regulation only to get cut off by a Johnson block, but Gordon’s post-race comments put it all out there.

The incident led to cars checking up and eventually the 31 car of Jeff Burton spinning and making contact with Gordon’s No. 24 Chevy, resulting in a 22nd place finish for the Pittsboro, Ind., native.

Gordon stated after the race that Johnson was “testing his patience” and that he was — upset, although upset is not the actual word he used.

This leads me to exclaim something I thought I would never say in my wildest dreams … go Jeff Gordon!

It’s not that I dislike Johnson — okay, maybe I do, but it has less to do with that and more to do with how Johnson is showing his ungratefulness for everything Gordon has done for him.

Let’s remember, it was Gordon who decided to partner with car owner Rick Hendrick to field a fourth team back in 2002, and it was also Gordon who helped make the decision to put Johnson in the 48 car with genius crew chief Chad Knaus.

The Knaus-Johnson tandem has emerged as the most effective partnership in the Cup garage, while Gordon has struggled ever since former crew chief Ray Evernham’s departure in 1999.

Gordon had a couple of good years with Robbie Loomis calling the shots atop the pit box, including the capture of his most recent series points championship back in 2001. But the Steve Letarte era has been anything but productive for Gordon, who has won only one race in the last three seasons.

While the problems Gordon and Letarte have faced from a performance standpoint appear to have eased up, their bad luck still persists, and Johnson has done little to help with that situation.

Gordon has been in position to capture victory a couple of times this year, but mechanical woes and Johnson’s decisions to give no quarter has left him winless and 10th in points after nine races.

It’s a far cry from Gordon’s late 90s heyday with Evernham in which he won three championships in a four-year span. His rise to the top was meteoric, and his image seemed a little too squeaky clean for most fans.

That made him the least likeable figure in NASCAR, that is, until Johnson’s emergence in 2002.

Fans’ initial dislike for Johnson was a bit of guilt by association, but he and crew chief Knaus have given us plenty of reasons to dislike the 48 team on its own merit since.

And it’s also refreshing to see Gordon behaving like a real racer, and displaying real emotions.

Will this brewing feud with Johnson turn Gordon, once the most despised driver on the circuit, into a fan favorite? That remains to be seen, but if you know your NASCAR history, you will remember how hated Darrell Waltrip was in his prime until a whippersnapper named Rusty Wallace came along and stole his thunder.

Now, old DW has a folk-hero type status among fans, was inducted into the new NASCAR Hall of Fame and is still heavily involved with the sport as a commentator for FOX.

History often repeats itself, and while I don’t ever see Gordon’s nasally voice lending itself to race broadcasts, 2010 could be the year he goes from villain to fan favorite.

And if that happens, I wonder what will happen to all of those cheeky Web sites dedicated to bashing Gordon, not that it has any effect on me.

By the way, does anyone want to buy a domain called “”