DARLINGTON, S.C. — Doubtless Jeff Gordon was happy for his boss.
In a euphoric Victory Lane, Rick Hendrick celebrated his long-awaited 200th victory, a win delivered by five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR Sprint Cup racing’s most prolific winner since he entered the series full-time in 2002.
Gordon, however, is a larger part of Hendrick’s milestone than Johnson is. Over a career now in its 20th full season, Gordon has contributed 85 victories to the Hendrick Motorsports ledger. Johnson’s win in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 was his 56th for the organization. Neither Gordon nor Johnson has won a Cup race for anyone else.
But for Gordon, the celebration was tempered with frustration. The four-time champion didn’t have a winning car Saturday night, but he was solidly in the top 10, running eighth when a cut left-rear tire forced him to the pits on Lap 193, barely past the midpoint of the race.
Ultimately, Gordon finished 35th and dropped a spot to 24th in the series standings, one spot behind Mark Martin, who has run only eight of the 11 Cup races this year. The Southern 500 was the latest chapter in a cavalcade of catastrophe for Gordon, who has finished outside the top 20 in seven of 11 races this year.
With 15 races left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set, Gordon faces the very real possibility of missing NASCAR’s playoff. His most likely path to title eligibility would seem to be winning a race or two and claiming one of two wild card spots. To do so, Gordon must get back into the top 20.
Hendrick, who predicted in January that all four of his drivers would qualify for the Chase, acknowledged Gordon’s predicament.
“He’s got to win,” Hendrick said flatly. “He and (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) know that. As good as he runs — as good as that car has been this year at different places, we can do it.
“It’s an uphill battle, but I’m confident Jeff will put everything he’s got in it, and we’ll win some races with him.”
Gordon’s continued frustration played a strong counterpoint to Hendrick’s jubilation in Victory Lane, but that wasn’t the only stark contrast of the evening. Equally striking is the way Gordon has handled his rash of ill fortune versus the way Kurt Busch handled his on Saturday night.
Yes, Gordon’s language on the radio has been saltier than usual of late, but in question-and-answer sessions with reporters, he has handled his adversity with wry resignation and customary grace.
“I don’t think there’s too many questions about that fact that we’re shooting for a wild card,” Gordon said. “We’re pretty far away from the Top 10. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I think that the nice thing about that is we just go do what we always try to do, which is win races.”
Gordon made those comments before the Southern 500. Today, they’re even more apropos.
Like Gordon, Busch was running in the top 10 for most of the Southern 500 before disaster struck. On Lap 361 he blew a tire and hit the outside wall near the exit from Turn 2. Ryan Newman checked up behind Busch and was turned into the wall by Aric Almirola.
Busch and Newman brought their wounded cars to the pit road for repairs.
Frustrated and furious, Busch peeled out of his pit stall when the work was complete, driving dangerously close to crewmen and NASCAR officials who were still at work in Newman’s pit.
“It’s easy to see, and it’s easy to say that Kurt blew a fuse again,” Newman said after the race, in a story reported by SI.com. “I’m not sure why he tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials — and nobody is.
“I think the chemical imbalance speaks for itself.”
Those are harsh words, without specific medical evidence to support them, but the history is there. A tirade against pit reporter Jerry Punch in last year’s season finale at Homestead was the effective final straw in Busch’s relationship with owner Roger Penske and sponsor Shell/Pennzoil.
The 2012 season brought a fresh start with James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, but Saturday’s race has cast an ominous pall over Busch’s efforts to rehabilitate his career. NASCAR is collecting facts and reviewing the circumstances before taking action with respect to the incident, if any, later this week.
In 2007 at Dover, Busch was parked and later fined $100,000 and docked 100 championship points for “buzzing” Tony Stewart’s car on pit road. Stewart’s jackman, Jason Lee, avoided potential injury by jumping onto the hood of Stewart’s car.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, said at the time that the penalties were designed to focus everyone’s attention on pit road safety. NASCAR will determine this week whether Busch needs a strong reminder.
In a larger sense, the Southern 500 leaves Busch’s career teetering on the brink. If a driver can’t be trusted to avoid the mistakes that have cost him in the past, who will take a chance and hire him? The job with Finch, which Busch could have used as a stepping stone to a bigger team, instead may become the millstone that drowns him.
Gordon and Busch share common ground. Both are enormously gifted wheel men. Both are Sprint Cup champions. In fact, Busch has been one of the top talents in the sport since he arrived in the series full-time in 2001.
There the similarity ends. Busch’s self-destructive lack of restraint is a treacherous threat to his very presence in NASCAR racing.
No matter how bad things get on the racetrack, that’s a problem Jeff Gordon will never have.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author