Changing Perceptions

It’s funny how perceptions change with success.

It wasn’t that long ago we acknowledged Robby Gordon’s versatility in racing vehicles of every sort. But not far behind the compliments would come a postscript: “Sure, he runs everything, but that’s because he can’t stay in one place for very long.”

But in the past few months, Gordon has won his first Winston Cup race, landed a full-time gig with NASCAR giant Childress Racing, and now his versatility is simply applauded, without as many snide afterthoughts.

Gordon added to his man-of-all-seasons reputation this past weekend with second-place showing in the Rolex 24, the 24-hour sportscar marathon that annually kicks off Daytona’s Speedweeks. Gordon joined co-drivers Scott Sharp, Guy Smith and team owner Jim Matthews in an open-cockpit prototype that finished second, six laps behind a winning team that included a former teammate, Indy-car star Max Papis.

Gordon finished second here before, in 1993, during his run of four straight class victories in the GT1 division.

Since his last Winston Cup race – his victory at the season-ender in New Hampshire – Gordon has raced a rally-car in the Canary Islands (set the course record on one run, caught fire on the next), run the Parker 400 off-road race last week in Arizona, and logged about eight hours of seat time in Daytona's 24-hour endurance classic.

“I just love to race, it doesn’t matter what,” Gordon said after Sunday’s effort. It doesn’t matter what. I’m fortunate enough to get the opportunity to get to drive for good teams.”

There was a time when big-time NASCAR sponsors frowned heavily upon contracted drivers who dared talk of moonlighting in other forms of motorsports. Due to well-rounded drivers like Gordon and Tony Stewart, the noose has loosened. But in this instance, not without a “discussion” or two between Gordon and his new Winston Cup sponsor, Cingular Wireless.

“Cingular, their company is about self-expression,” said Gordon. “They started to tell me, ‘Well, you can’t do this and you can’t do that.' I said, ‘What do you mean? You're all about self-expression.’”

Cingular gave in, on one obvious condition: Don’t get hurt.

Gordon not only survived the 24 hours unscathed, he appeared ready for more.

“I actually feel really good right now," he said. “I only drove eight hours. I drove a race last weekend (at Parker) where I drove eight hours by myself.

“This is more of a brutal race for the crew. They don’t get any rest. They can doze off for 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there.”

The strain is mostly mental, said Gordon. On a fast, 3.56-mile track, with speed differentials of 20-plus mph between classes of cars, there's simply no time to relax.

“The biggest thing was just being smart and not running into anybody,” said Gordon. “The gaps between some of the Porsches and us...you go through some of the corners and think, well I’ll pass him on the next corner, but before you know it, you’re all over him. A couple times I had to lock up the brakes.”

The highlight for Gordon came overnight, when his team was trying to make up time. Twice during a driving stint, he got to lap Papis, who was under team orders to go easy on the throttle due to his team’s comfortable lead at the time.

“I had a lot of fun racing with Papis at 3 in the morning,” said Gordon. “We were getting after it. Every time I went by him I let him know he’s still number one.”

Now, after a few days off, Gordon can return to his “day job” with Childress Racing – driving the No. 31 Chevrolet in preparation for the Feb. 17 Daytona 500.

“I’m looking forward to getting back in the Cup car this week,” he said. “We’ve got a good car, a good crew, and obviously Richard Childress knows what it takes to get a car around this speedway.”

As long as Gordon doesn’t suffer flashbacks and detour through the chicane before Turn 3, he has to be considered among the contenders for the season opener.

And, a few months ago, who could’ve imagined saying that?

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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