blank 05/15/12 10:15AM Darlington, Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, No.24, Sprint Cup

Hendrick's big night another trying one for Gordon


No. 24 bitten by bad luck again at Darlington, blowing out tire twice in poor finish

By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
May 13, 2012 2:08 AM, EDT


DARLINGTON, S.C. -- It was a rare moment of relative quiet at Darlington Raceway, with the track under caution and the field coasting at pace-car speed along the backstretch. Amid the long shadows cast by the infield lights, the No. 24 car backed out of its garage stall and rumbled toward the race track. As the vehicle rolled back onto the racing surface, an ovation welled up from the crowd, the cheers plainly audible even above the chatter of the facility's public-address system.

It was not the kind of cheering Jeff Gordon is accustomed to hearing at Darlington, a place where he has more victories than any driver still gripping a steering wheel. He won here five years ago despite an overheating engine, a geyser of steam spouting from under his hood as he coasted into Victory Lane. He won here in 2002 to claim a record-tying fifth Southern 500 crown. He won here in 1997, putting a mean block on Jeff Burton to claim a $1 million bonus offered by the series sponsor. He won three in a row here from 1995-96, something only one other driver -- Dale Earnhardt -- has ever done.

Jeff Gordon (Autostock)

This is not even about tonight, in my opinion. This is an accumulation of everything that's been going on with these performances and finishes this year. It's almost comical. ... [I am] baffled by it.

-- JEFF GORDON

As much as anywhere else, old and cantankerous Darlington can claim to be where the Jeff Gordon legacy was cemented -- a difficult and unforgiving place where this one-time wunderkind earned his position among the best to ever pilot a stock car. Gordon has heard plenty of cheers at Darlington over the course of his illustrious career. But not the kind born out of sympathy.

Yet that's what rained down on him Saturday night, as he drove out of the garage area 28 laps down after a long but ultimately futile search to find out what cut down a pair of left-rear tires on the black and red Chevrolet. All the struggles Gordon has experienced during this disastrous season were cast in stark relief, not only in a place that's historically been one of his best tracks, but on an evening where teammate Jimmie Johnson recorded the long-awaited 200th victory for their Hendrick Motorsports organization. There was Johnson, spraying champagne while Hendrick officials passed out those 200th victory caps that have been stuck in a box for seven months. And there was his one-time mentor, Gordon, standing in a darkened garage area with a car that finished second-to-last among those that didn't start and park.

"I said this a couple of weeks ago -- bad luck is when you run over something that no one else can find and you cut a tire. We did that twice tonight," said Gordon, who fell to an unthinkable 24th in Sprint Cup points, and is mired in the worst season of his career. "I don't know. I am baffled. ... All the good things that happened to us all these years to win races are biting us right now. But we know it can't last forever."

Can it? The litany at this point seems never-ending, and is full of the unusual and the bizarre. Engine failure at Daytona, a tire cut down by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s exhaust pipe at Bristol, pit-road penalties at Fontana, getting wrecked on a restart late in a Martinsville race he had a real chance to win. Then, it just seemed like a slow start. Now, after a cylinder going down at Kansas and a flat tire at Richmond and a crash at Talladega and the drama of Saturday night at Darlington, it seems like a curse.

"Jeff -- I wouldn't fly home with him," car owner Rick Hendrick quipped in the race winner's media conference. "It's been unbelievable. I told him that out there. I said, 'I've got seats on the helicopter, but you can't come with me.'"

That Gordon has had fast cars almost all season, and things still keep happening, only makes it worse. There he was, riding in the top 10 for much of the night at Darlington, racing the race track and keeping himself in the mix. Gradually, the car rounded into form. "I think we're pretty decent right here," he told crew chief Alan Gustafson over the radio after a green-flag pit stop. Then, a handful of laps later, what had been a promising event rapidly deteriorated at the driver's utterance of four alarming words: Flat tire, left rear.

And, suddenly, it was another night of crisis management. Gordon pitted, lost a lap, got back out on the race track -- and had the same thing happen again. "Another flat tire," he radioed. "The thing wants to spin out." Back to pit road, this time for 13 laps of evaluation, to try and find if anything under the car was cutting the tire down. Eventually they were forced to the garage, where crewmen swarmed over the vehicle and cleaned everything out, but discovered no obvious culprit.

"We couldn't find anything, Jeff," Gustafson told his driver.

"Crazy," was Gordon's response.

*Video: Jeff Gordon's bad luck continues

After the race, Gustafson was still flummoxed. They had found nothing wrong with the car. It ran well before the tire problems. Then they sent it back out, and it ran well again -- only 28 laps down. Of course it did. No wonder Gustafson looks like a crew chief who's beaten himself up one too many times.

"We're trying to stay up, but it's tough," he said. "I know, personally, I feel like I'm doing a lot of things wrong. You feel like you can't even run a race. I don't know. ... I don't know why or how.

"I feel bad for our sponsors and everybody that supports us and all of Jeff's fans. It's tough to deal with. All these guys work really hard, and we deserve a lot better than this. What's tough, when you get into these situations, is you second-guess everything you do. And I'm trying not to do that, but it's tough when you can't even finish a race."

It all had the makings of the lowest point of a very low season, given all Gordon has accomplished at Darlington and what the night ultimately meant to Hendrick. And yet, the driver emerged from his No. 24 car with a smile on his face. This run of disastrous fortune is eating him up, no question. But it's all become so ridiculously over the top, it almost seems funny in a sad kind of way. A tire cut down a teammate's exhaust pipe? Getting wrecked when he had the best car in the event? Cutting the same tire sliced twice in one night, only laps apart? What's next, a spent lug nut bouncing off pit road and puncturing his radiator? Who knows.

"This is not even about tonight, in my opinion," Gordon said. "This is an accumulation of everything that's been going on with these performances and finishes this year. It's almost comical. Tonight -- my goodness. To run over something, possibly the same thing, and cut two left-rear tires back to back, you're baffled by it. It's not a fun thing, I can tell you that. We've had great things go our way throughout the years. Now they're not going our way. We just keep working hard, hope it turns around."

It's all they can do, really. But first, they had to walk to Victory Lane for the celebration of Hendrick's 200th victory, an event that included all the organization's at-track personnel gathering for a group photo. Although every Hendrick driver wanted to be the one to deliver the landmark victory, Gordon said he wouldn't have had enough car to challenge for the win even if his night hadn't gone awry. But as much as Hendrick employees revere their boss, it was still difficult for members of a floundering race team to try and celebrate in the aftermath of another disheartening night.

"I'm very glad it happened. But it's hard to put aside the struggles we're having," Gustafson said. "That's at the forefront of my mind regardless of anything that happens."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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