Once known as a road course king, Jeff Gordon was more a menace to his competitors during last season’s Toyota/SaveMart 350. He might have come home with a top five finish but it didn’t come without controversy or in a fashion he and many others would rather forget.
[media-credit name=”Barry Albert” align=”alignright” width=”256″][/media-credit]“Disaster,” said Gordon Friday in Sonoma when asked about last year. Disaster because Gordon drove through the field, literally, and in the process angered many of his peers. They went home with wrecked cars and bad finishes as Gordon went home with a target on his back.
“It was just one of those terrible days where I made a lot of mistakes,” said Gordon. “No doubt made a lot of people unhappy and been trying to move on from it ever since.”
Gordon knocked fenders with Brian Vickers who then spun David Ragan. Later that same lap he drove down into turn 11 and drove through Martin Truex Jr. who spun and was later caught up in a wreck on a restart because of his track position. Truex wasn’t pleased and promised payback on Gordon, saying what goes around comes around.
In turn 11 again a few laps later Gordon drove into the back of Elliott Sadler who hit Clint Bowyer and they both spun. His actions left broadcasters and fans wondering out loud, “What is Jeff doing?”
Gordon’s final victim was Kurt Busch. Coming up the hill in turn two Gordon forced Busch off the pavement. When he attempted to get back on track it stacked the field up behind him, including Marcos Ambrose who was trying to gain back positions he lost after being placed seventh by NASCAR after his car didn’t refire under caution.
Gordon drove with one eye over his shoulder for many weeks to come, expecting payback. Entering Sunday’s race he admits that he’s not sure if those drivers will remember a year ago but says he won’t be thinking about any of them.
“I’ve tried to apologize to the ones that I really made mistakes with,” he said. “There were some racing incidents that went on that day too that were just racing and that you just move on and race one another however you race one another. I have to approach this race the same way I do any other race and just go out there and do everything I can to get the best finish I can. Not put too much effort into thinking about what those guys have planned or whatever.”
Guys like Truex Jr. who will start next to Gordon on Sunday. The two qualified 13th and 14th respectively. Truex Jr. though said he won’t be focused on the past, instead he’s focused on getting the car to perform as well as last years and capitalizing.
Busch, who starts 11th, might not be as nice. He had numerous run-ins with Hendrick Motorsports drivers last season and has no problem talking about it. He made sure everyone was well aware on Friday that the last two years at Sonoma a HMS driver ran him off track.
“It was an off day for Jeff,” said Busch. “He apologized to a handful of guys afterwards and for some reason pinpointed me. I thought that was interesting. He drove straight through our right rear and we finished 32nd.”
Yet, both Gordon and Busch acknowledged that there’s a different style of aggressiveness when it comes to Sonoma. One Gordon most likely won’t repeat anytime soon, at least not as he did last year. Whereas a rhythm can be found and executed on an oval, racing at Sonoma allows a driver to throw the car around and drive much harder into a corner.
There’s also the added fact that NASCAR’s new car doesn’t damage as easily. Drivers are willing to take more chances, trade more paint and even lean on other drivers. Even if that means leaning a little too hard to where it doesn’t always work out for the other driver.
While Gordon hopes he doesn’t end up in the position he put many a year ago, he knows that if those drivers see a chance to put a fender to the No. 24, they might take it.
“I’m sure if they’re in a position to kind of get back what happened then I’m sure they will,” he said. “My goal this weekend is not to allowed myself to get in that position.”