Jeff Gordon Remains Best Stand-In for Earnhardt Jr. At Watkins Glen

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Jeff Gordon has extensive experience and wins on road courses.

Not that I yearn for Jeff Gordon to make a full comeback, but the storied four-time NASCAR Cup Champion surely has a lot left in his tank.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. having missed three races as he carefully recovers from concussion-like symptoms, Jeff Gordon has already covered for Earnhardt Jr. at two races in admirable fashion, ensuring the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy delivered a solid finish of 13th at Indianapolis. This past weekend at weather-shortened Pocono Raceway, Gordon finished 28th after suffering a seat belt malfunction, having worked his way up to 8th on the final restart before the race was called.

Several reporters have carped on having Gordon sub for Earnhardt Jr., but, in fact, this tag team make perfect sense. Critiques have centered around the one-year delay of Gordon’s hall of fame eligibility (no doubt he is a first ballot Hall of Famer) or that Hendrick Motorsports should concentrate on using a development driver to build its talent pipeline.

Still, approaching the upcoming weekend at Watkins Glen is a different beast altogether. The Glen is a mecca of North American road racing and extremely popular venue among both fans and drivers; a swift road course that can produce challenging side by side racing as well as violent crashes. And, with wrecks that have the potential for head-on barrier impacts, The Glen would surely not be a good match for Earnhardt Jr. to return even if he is medically cleared of concussion symptoms.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

Gordon at speed driving Watkins Glen.

“The difference between Sonoma and Watkins Glen are tremendous,” says Jeff Gordon, who has nine wins across the two road course on NASCAR’s schedule. “Watkins Glen is very high speed, much faster overall average speed, so you’re carrying a lot more speed through the corners. You rely more on the downforce there than at Sonoma.”

For Gordon, the timing sequence of his jumping in the car is right in his sweet spot of both his experience and past successes. Just consider Gordon’s career victory statistics:

  • Indianapolis: 5 wins at the Brickyard (1st among active drivers)
  • Pocono Raceway: 6 wins at the Tricky Triangle (1st among active drivers)
  • Watkins Glen International: 4 wins (2nd among active drivers)

Likewise, NASCAR gets a much needed boost, even if fleeting, by having the #88 Hendrick Chevy filled with an iconic all-star driver of Gordon’s caliber, rather than a development driver. The power of having Gordon in the #88, as compared to Alex Bowman who subbed at New Hampshire, is evident in the TV ratings for the Brickyard 400.

With Gordon back on the track, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 scored a double-digit ratings increase over last year, with viewership up 11%. Even more surprising, the Brickyard 400 broadcast was the highest rated program in the history of the fledgling NBCSN cable network. For the upcoming weekend, NBCSN yet again can promote the continuation of Gordon’s stellar career, as he would achieve yet another milestone with 800 career starts (having retired last year with 797 starts)

And, just to put the icing on the cake, there are compelling driver and team benefits of having Gordon in the #88 Chevy.

Gordon’s knowledge of the race car is priceless, and he can contribute to the Hendrick organization more intangibles than any other available backup driver. Jeff is also the right driver in terms of not putting extra pressure on Dale Jr. to return too quickly.

With Gordon having previously swapped his helmet for a microphone during the first half of the broadcast season for TV partner FoxSports, being in the car gives Gordon relevant knowledge of how the current NASCAR downforce package is playing in the car, which only ups his ability to share that fresh insight with fans as NASCAR kicks-off the 2017 season.

For the #88 crew chief Greg Ives, he gets to work with an iconic driver of the sport, a perfectionist who can help push along Hendrick Motorsport’s efforts to improve the #88 car’s performance and remain in contention for the NASCAR owner’s championship.

Earnhardt Jr. encapsulates the opportunity for his team, commenting “Getting a different driver in there that thinks differently, feels things differently, is a great way to get new information. I was excited for Greg and I think this is really helping our team, as unfortunate as this situation is, we need to try to gain something out of it. I think our guys are excited about the opportunity to work with Jeff.”

Of course, both fans, as well as team owner Rick Hendrick are looking forward to having NASCAR’s most popular driver back racing “soon.” Of course, road course racing is unique on the NASCAR circuit, and you never quite know what you will get. With Gordon in the race seat, the guy that Hendrick already has in the car is pretty darn good.

For a true racer, it is tough not to look back on getting out of the car with no regrets. Gordon even admitted that he “jumped” at the chance to get back in the car when he got the text from Rick Hendrick, who he has spent his entire career with. And sponsors surely can’t complain about having a four-time Champion as a replacement driver in the car.

At the Glen, fans will be treated to one more opportunity to gaze upon Gordon’s unrivaled talents in the car. Own it, Jeff Gordon was born to race.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

Watkins Glen: More Safety, More Road Races


The skill set required to road race a modern Sprint Cup car is necessary as road races become more appealing. The safety has become the issue. Monday’s Watkins Glen race showed these cars are too heavy to not upgrade the tracks they run on.

Weather May Force A Date Change But Not Driver Challenges

When it comes to a race nobody likes a rainout – not NASCAR, not the competitors, not the media, not speedway officials and, especially, not the fans.

Everyone wants the event to run on schedule for a lot of different reasons. Promoters know a postponement is going to cost them money. Fans paid that money and there is no certainty many of them can return the next day.

The media doesn’t WANT to come back another day. They want to finish their work on schedule and get the hell out.

I’ve been there and done that and believe me, for the media, there is no bigger hassle than, given the location of the speedway, to have to hastily reschedule a flight and often increase the company expenses.

Admittedly, for me, that was a while back. Might be easier today. That doesn’t make it any less disliked.

But rainouts happen. It’s all simply a part of the way things are. When a sport is conducted outside – in Mother Nature’s realm – there are going to be times when the old lady just won’t cooperate.

Which is exactly what happened yesterday at Watkins Glen International, where the Heluva Good! 500 Sprint Cup race was supposed to be conducted on the 2.45-mile road course.

Steady rain began just when the race was supposed to start a 1p.m. and did not end in time for track crews to dry the racing surface – a task we were told would take at least two hours.

Jet driers did get on the track but a second front assured the postponement until 10 a.m. this morning.

A delay isn’t popular, but then, the fact that a race is rescheduled for the next day makes the whole thing more palatable than it used to be.

There was a time when a postponed race was re-scheduled for the next clear weekend – be it in seven days, 14 or longer. It was whatever open weekend the schedule would allow.

Cars were impounded in the garage and there they stayed, untouched, for at least a week. When the teams finally returned to the track they were allowed to make minor preparations for the race, but that was about it.

There were times when a practice session was scheduled but they were rare.

The reason for all of this was mostly to ease the promoters’ concerns. Many were adamantly against rescheduling a race for the next day.

They felt that since Monday was a workday most fans wouldn’t – or couldn’t – return to the speedway. After all, NASCAR was a blue-collar sport that was popular among blue-collar workers. And how many of them were able to fashion their own work hours?

But in time NASCAR realized that waiting a week, or longer, to run a postponed race was by far a more expensive proposition for all concerned.

For the teams and media, at the least it often meant rebooked motel rooms for all concerned (which were sometimes unavailable) and maybe another round of airline tickets.

It definitely meant the loss of an otherwise open weekend. That, believe me, was widely despised.

It was the same for the fans, many of whom had planned and saved for a particular race weekend and simply didn’t have the time or money to do it all over again.

So NASCAR came up with its “next clear day” rule, which, of course, decreed that postponed races would run on the very first day the weather cooperated.

It was less expensive and more convenient for all concerned, even the promoters, who discovered that while attendance did drop off on a Monday, it was often better than it was a week or longer after the postponement.

“The next clear day” doesn’t solely mean Monday. A delayed race may run on a Tuesday if need be, although it’s not likely to extend beyond that because of teams’ need to get back to the shops and prepare for the next event.

If the Heluva Good 500 doesn’t get the green flag today – and I suspect that, given its 10 a.m. start, most of us will soon know one way or the other – NASCAR officials have said it might indeed have a go on Tuesday.

OK, while a race’s date may change, its challenges to the drivers do not – nor does what is at stake for many of them.

Several drivers face the same issues they faced before Sunday. Only difference is now they have to deal with them on a Monday.

For example, among other things, the “wildcard” spots for the Chase are still up for grabs. Drivers with the most wins and who are among the top 20 in points when the Chase begins will join the “playoffs” with the top 10 in standings.

At the Glen, those two drivers are Denny Hamlin, 11th in points with one victory, and Brad Keselowski, who stands 18th with two wins.

When it comes to Chase uncertainty, they aren’t alone. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hangs on to 10th in points but he has yet to win this year. Tony Stewart is ninth and is also winless.

David Ragan, once among the “wildcard” contenders after his victory in Daytona in July, is now 19th in points, one position and one victory behind Keselowski.

You can easily see what might happen among these drivers at the Glen, both good and bad. The race’s date has changed, but the circumstances? Not one bit.

That, of course, applies to every driver in the race. One of them is Australian Marcos Ambrose. He has yet to win a Sprint Cup race after 104 starts.

But observers, and his statistics, say that it’s the Glen where he’ll get his best shot at victory. He’s rated as one of NASCAR’s best road-course drivers, if not the best.

He’s won three Nationwide Series races at the Glen but couldn’t land a ride for this year’s event, which, I’m sure, didn’t sit well with him.

He’s never finished worse than third in three Cup starts. And in his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, he held the provisional pole for the Heluva Good 500 until bested by Kyle Busch and A.J. Allmendinger. Ambrose starts third today.

Ambrose said the rain delay hasn’t made him more anxious. I suspect the same can be said for the drivers scrapping for a position in the Chase.

“You can’t fight the weather,” Ambrose said when the event was postponed. “I just worry about the things I can control.

“In our case, the cover is on the car and it’s ready to go. We’re a contender, that’s for sure. But there’s nothing you can do until the sun comes out.”

Which, hopefully and ideally, happened before 10 a.m. today.

For A Time Rudd And Wallace Were Unmatched On Road Courses

When the Watkins Glen International road course in New York returned to NASCAR in 1986 it became one of two multi-turn tracks on the Winston Cup circuit.

The other was Riverside International Raceway in California, which had been around for decades, but had only two more years to live.

Prior to 1986, the Glen’s last presence in NASCAR was in 1965, when Marvin Panch won a race known as the Glen 151.8 in a Wood Brothers Ford.

Some observers were puzzled over why NASCAR would add another road course to its schedule, especially since oval tracks were dominant in stock car racing.

But the sanctioning body was just beginning a new phase of expansion – and it certainly didn’t hurt to add a venue located near some large Northeastern markets.

At the time, most of NASCAR’s regular competitors weren’t all that skilled on road courses and some didn’t care to be. So it was that only a handful of drivers did well at Riverside and, logically, were expected to do the same at the Glen.

Darrell Waltrip, for example, won four times in seven races at Riverside from 1979-81. Tim Richmond, Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte combined to win six of the California track’s eight races from 1982-85.

So the reasoning was that these well-seasoned road course drivers would be the prime contenders for victory when Watkins Glen made its debut.

Turns out that, for a while anyway, that turned out to be accurate.

Unlike Riverside, Watkins Glen was awarded only one race on the Winston Cup schedule. The first was held on Aug. 10 and Richmond, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, was the winner.

He also won at Riverside in November, which was preceded by Waltrip’s victory there in June. So it seemed that when in came to road courses, it wasn’t difficult to predict a winner – it was going to be one of the “usual” guys.

But 1987 saw the beginning of an unusual streak at the Glen. Yep, races there were still won by drivers considered road course aces. The difference was that for four years, victory was accomplished by just two of them.

It reached the point where Rudd and Rusty Wallace were so dominant at Watkins Glen many began to wonder if anyone else would win on the seven-turn road course.

Wallace entered the ’87 season having won only on oval tracks. But on Aug. 10 at the Glen he was so dominant in Raymond Beadle’s Pontiac that, with a 22.2-second lead, he could still make a last-lap pit stop for gas and finish nearly 12 seconds ahead of Labonte.

Wallace went on to win at Riverside in November and then was victorious in the last race held there in June of 1988.

When the Bud at the Glen rolled around on August 14, Wallace had won three consecutive races on road courses.

He almost made it four in a row. He caught leader Rudd, then driving for Kenny Bernstein, on the last lap and popped him in the rear end, which caused both their cars to break sideways.

Rudd held on for the victory, his only one of the season.

In 1989, it was again Wallace’s turn. He won a late-race duel with Mark Martin and earned his fourth victory in the last six of NASCAR’s road-course races.

However, one of the two he didn’t win was the inaugural event in June at what was then known as Sears Point International Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

He lost to – you guessed it – Rudd, who won a furious, last-lap bumping battle.

By this time nearly everyone figured that when NASCAR went to either of its two road courses, the day was going to belong to either Rudd or Wallace – take your pick.

That opinion intensified in 1990. On June 10, Wallace won at Sonoma to take his fifth win in seven road-course races. He nudged Rudd out of the way (you could have guessed that) on the 60th of 74 laps and went on to beat Martin under caution. Rudd finished third.

Well, you can just imagine what happened at the next road course race. It was, of course, at the Glen on Aug. 12. Rudd, who had joined Hendrick’s operation, overcame an early spin and three flat tires to ultimately cruise to victory over Geoff Bodine.

Wallace was no factor. His engine blew after just 46 laps.

It was the first win of the season for Rudd and the three-car Hendrick organization, which was very surprising considering that the team’s driver lineup included Waltrip and Ken Schrader.

The victory was Rudd’s third in five road-course races.

Rudd and Wallace won all six of NASCAR’s road-course events conducted from 1987-1990 at either the Glen or Sonoma.

They won four of the first five races at Watkins Glen after its return to NASCAR in 1986.

Together they fashioned a truly remarkable competitive streak and established themselves as the premier road racers in NASCAR.

Then something strange happened. After 1990, neither Rudd nor Wallace won again at the Glen.

Each won only one more time at what became known as Infineon Raceway – Wallace in 1996 (his only road-course victory with team owner Roger Penske) – and Rudd in 2002 while with Robert Yates.

A new generation of drivers became NASCAR’s road-course aces, prominent among them Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Wallace retired after the 2005 season. Rudd followed two years later. History records both as two of NASCAR’s best drivers.

That was never more evident than on road courses during the latter 1980s, when both proved to be invincible.

NASCAR:Tony Stewart, Formula One: Lewis Hamilton

This coming summer Tony Stewart from Sprint Cup and Lewis Hamilton from Formula One will converge on the sleepy hamlet of Watkins Glen. They’re going to swap cars to see what the other’s racing world is like. Jeff Gordon and Juan Montoya did it and it was a hit. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

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