Leftover Turkey

There are some things that will just never fit. Try as I might, I can’t get my 34-inch waist into my old 32-inch jeans. Jay Leno will never seem at home as host of the “Tonight Show.” And I still can’t get used to the Cubs playing night baseball in Wrigley Field.

There’s an ill fit in the auto racing world as well and his name is Robby Gordon. For various reasons, Gordon seems to wear out his welcome with race teams, sanctioning bodies and fans quicker than Grandma’s pumpkin pie disappeared from your Thanksgiving Day table on Thursday. A driver who seems to have forever been labeled as one with “potential,” Gordon has put together a racing career that can be described as checkered at best.

The California native has competed in a variety of racing including off-road, sports car, CART, the Indianapolis 500 and Winston Cup competition. But no matter where he is, his constant companion seems to be controversy.

That legacy grew on Friday when he rammed his way past leader Jeff Gordon (who I’m sure has always been quick to point out there’s no relation between the two) to win the postponed New Hampshire 300 in Loudon. With the four-time Winston Cup champion dominating the race, old Robby decided to stay in the fall football mode by punting his way into the lead. He rear-ended the DuPont Chevrolet with a mighty blow as the field raced through turn three and stole his first career Winston Cup victory.

“I’d be embarrassed if I were him,” said Jeff afterward in a rare emotional display that included a retaliatory thump to the rear bumper of the winner’s Lowe’s Chevrolet, which cost him a black flag penalty. “He flat out ran over me and if that’s the way he needed to win, so be it. We would have had a good clean battle to the end if he would have played it that way.”

The winner, not surprisingly, saw it a different way. “Jeff checked up when the 12 car (Mike Wallace) spun,” he said, although replay after replay showed the only spinning Wallace did was after the 31 car sent the 24 into him. “I’m not embarrassed by anything.”

It’s unfortunately not as simple as chalking this up as a “racing deal” and two competitors going hard at each other over the closing laps of a race. The track record of the man driving the car that eventually wound up in victory lane simply won’t allow it.

In 62 career Winston Cup starts, Gordon has notched only four top-five finishes driving for the likes of such prominent car owners as Robert Yates, Dale Earnhardt, Felix Sabates and Richard Childress. Although only this season’s stint with Childress and his 2000 campaign with his own team could be considered full-time opportunities, Gordon has time and again shown anything remotely close to patience or tack during his NASCAR tenure.

Gordon was always considered a road racing specialist and his talent on the twisting, turning circuits is certainly his strength. In fact, he was in position to win both Winston Cup road races this year. His bid to win at Watkins Glen was thwarted when NBC’s in-car telemetry shorted out and caused a fire to start inside his car. But his failure to win at Sears Point was classic Robby.

Battling for the lead with Tony Stewart, Gordon refused to let the lapped car of Kevin Harvick’s by, even though it was clear the GM Goodwrench Chevy had fresher tires and was decidedly faster. Whether it was Gordon’s pride to not let the upstart Harvick around or just pure brain fade proved fatal as Stewart was able to slip around for the win.

It’s these kinds of on track blunders that haven’t exactly made Gordon an enduring figure on the Winston Cup circuit. Friday’s move was the exclamation point, a symbolic clash between two drivers who share the same last name but are worlds apart in finesse and class. Sure, Dale Earnhardt made a living out of “rattling someone’s cage” to make a pass and even Jeff Gordon used a similar move to get around Rusty Wallace at Bristol on the last lap a few years back.

But the difference is those two drivers hold eleven Winston Cup championships between them and earned the respect of most every driver on the circuit. Those instances were the exception rather than the norm. Maybe it’s not unlike the NBA’s former “Jordan Rules,” which seemed to apply to the old Michael Jordan, who more often than not “got away” with moves, contact and defense other players did not.

There’s no doubt that Robby Gordon does have the talent to drive a racecar. The question remains if he’ll ever be able to harness that talent in Winston Cup racing or if Friday’s hit and run was the best he can do. I guess he’ll just have to show us.

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