Gordon Finds His Groove

Robby Gordon seemed to cement his ride with Richard Childress Racing with a solid seventh-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday.

At least that’s what Richard Childress said. And you’d think he’d know. He’s the one who signs Gordon’s checks.

Gordon has been in the RCR No. 31 Chevy since Mike Skinner stepped out of the ride to have knee surgery. Childress hasn’t announced a driver for 2002 for the No. 31 Chevy, but everyone seems to think it’s going to be Gordon.The car’s new sponsor for next season – Cingular Wireless – appears to like Gordon as well, something that is certainly in his favor.

Sunday, Childress seemed to finally confirm Gordon would be his man for next season, without actually making it official.

“He did a great job for us all day,” Childress said. “He’s what I expected, and he’s going to do a helluva job next year.”

Gordon’s run at Phoenix was his best in a Winston Cup car, at least one on an oval. Gordon nearly won at Sears Point earlier this season, losing to Tony Stewart when RCR driver Kevin Harvick nudged Gordon as he was trying to get a lap back from him.

But Sears Point is a road course, a Gordon specialty. On ovals – the norm for the Winston Cup Series – Gordon had never posted a Top 10 until Sunday.

“This will be our first Top 10 (with RCR),” Gordon said. “We’ve been there before. Unfortunately, something always bites us, and we never get to the finish line. Now to have a clean run like this and to drive pretty much conservative for most of the race, I’m pretty happy.”

Conservative is usually not a phrase Gordon likes to use. And he definitely doesn’t like to drive that way. But you can’t drive flat-out for a full Winston Cup race without getting into trouble.

So Childress has tried to rein Gordon in, to get him to ease out of the gas just a little.

“To me, watching him with his talent and ability, he reminds me a lot about when Tim Richmond came,” Childress said. “That’s what I saw in him. We’ve helped him and we’ve kept him calmed down. We told him just be smooth. We’re going to approach this thing different from the way he’s ever approached it.”

That has been part of Gordon’s problem in the past. No one denies he’s a talented race driver: He’s won in CART, in off-road cars, in IMSA. And he nearly won the Indianapolis 500 two years ago.

Ability has never been an issue. Harnessing that ability has been.

But maybe Childress is the perfect guy for Gordon. As a team owner, Childress has 71 Winston Cup victories and six championships, and he’s one of the most respected men in the garage area. If anyone can get Gordon to listen, it’s Childress.

Gordon seems to have reached a point in his career and his life – he’s 32 – where he realizes this could be his last shot at Winston Cup superstardom. He broke into the NASCAR ranks full-time win 1997 with Felix Sabates but didn’t last the entire year. Gordon tried to run his own team last year, but that was a major struggle.

He landed with Morgan-McClure Motorsports at the start of 2001, but that lasted five races. Finally, Childress came calling.

“For one thing, he’s older than he was when he was here before, and he listens,” Childress said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a race driver, and he has a lot of respect for Richard Childress Racing. We’re going to get there.”

Gordon got there Sunday, at least in the Top 10. He was running sixth late in the race when another Gordon – three-time champion Jeff – made an aggressive move and passed him. Still, seventh isn’t too bad, especially when you consider his previous best finish on an oval this year has been 14th.

And it’s even better when you consider all the tire problems Sunday. A hard-charging driver like Gordon can wear out a right-front tire pretty quickly, but there was no such trouble. Crew chief Royce McGee made sure of that.

“Royce made a good call,” Gordon said. “He really loosed up my car to avoid popping a right-front tire. The car was loose for a while, but then as the run went on it got tighter.”

Gordon started 42nd after taking a provisional but steadily moved his way to the front. By Lap 78, he was 20th. At the halfway point, he was 14th. Three-quarters into the race, he was eighth. At the finish, he had moved up a spot.

For Gordon, just finishing a race is half the battle sometimes.

“You know, it’s good to have a good run like that,” Gordon said. “We’ve had some good runs before, but the final result hasn’t been there. So to bring this home within the Top 10 is a good place to start.”

On 2002, that is. Perhaps, for Gordon, it will be in a Richard Childress car.

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