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10 things learned at New Hampshire
After seeing Jeff Gordon on the TV screen Sunday night at dinner, a friend at the table remarked, “Do you remember when he was good?”
The media member, who covered other sports before moving to NASCAR in 2008, wasn’t around for Gordon’s four Cup championships, his three consecutive double-digit winning seasons or 81 of his 85 career wins.
By that time, Jimmie Johnson was all the rage. But it was Gordon who blazed a trail for young racers on the West Coast hoping to compete on a national basis.
Today, 16 full-time Sprint Cup drivers were born west of the Mississippi, including six from California who are among the top 30.
With Gordon’s enormous success, NASCAR’s exposure grew to markets where the good ol’ boys were never before accepted. And through his accomplishments, Gordon continues to change the landscape.
This week, Gordon will venture to Africa again — not to vacation, not for safari. Gordon, as part of his Clinton Global Initiative commitment, is on a philanthropic mission to Rwanda, where he is funding a cancer center.
“Last year's trip, we went and looked at what PIH (Partners in Health) is doing there with their hospitals,” Gordon said. “Now, we are actually doing the grand opening and the ribbon-cutting ceremony of it actually starting. It took a little while to get — the hospital is there, but to get the cancer center, which is the part that we're helping to fund. It also took a while to get some pretty important people scheduled there. I am excited that Paul Farmer, he's kind of masterminded it all, will be there. But we'll also have President Clinton there, and the president of Rwanda, President Kagame.
“I'm excited. I leave Monday. It's going to be a very short trip, but it's one that I'm really looking forward to getting back there. It is such a beautiful area — that Butaro Hospital and its rural area. I'm able to be a part of something that is groundbreaking in rural East Africa. This is the first of its kind of any cancer center. When they look at the projections in a developing country like East Africa, cancer is on the rise there and can be very curable and treatable in many cases. It's just not happening. This is a big step, and I can't wait to get there and be a part of this event."
When Gordon returns to action for the Brickyard 400 in two weeks, it will be a return to his day job. And, yes, Gordon hasn’t received the exposure on the track the past five seasons he had previously. But he capped off the first 19 races of 2012 with a sixth-place finish at Loudon on Sunday, his fourth top-10 finish in the past five races. Still, he remains 17th in the points standings and 89 points outside of the Chase after a rash of bad luck this season. With only seven races to qualify, it appears Gordon’s only shot at the Chase will come from multiple wins. It has been 30 races since Gordon’s last win, at Atlanta on Sept. 6.
Since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was instituted in 2004, Gordon has missed the postseason only once — in 2005, when neither he nor Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified. NASCAR expanded the Chase field to 12 the following year. And although the wild-card program has been wildly popular in the past two seasons, without wins, Gordon is unlikely to be on the stage when the 12 drivers are announced following the race at Richmond.
Still, at 40, the day will soon come when Gordon isn’t in the field at all. And while we’ll have the highlight reels to remind us of those magical moments on the track, Gordon’s greatest contributions could very well be the ones made outside of NASCAR.
Here are 10 other stories we’ll be watching during the off week:
1. Wild cards
Kasey Kahne’s second win and subsequent vaulting to the top of the wild-card standings exposes the stark difference between his achievements and the talent pool outside of the top 10 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. On Sunday, Denny Hamlin said he expects the two Hendrick cars in the battle for a wild-card spot — those of Kahne and Gordon — to be contenders until two races before the Chase. Still, only four of the 10 drivers in the wild-card eligible group of drivers between 11th and 20th in the standings have wins. Gordon does not. Kyle Busch (13th), Ryan Newman (14th) and Joey Logano (16th) each have one victory. But one of these drivers — or another among the group — will have to win another race or two to distinguish himself from the others.
2. Carl who?
Speaking of wild cards, Carl Edwards remains 11th in the points standings, but he’s now 46 points outside of the Chase group. Without a victory this season (and currently on a 52-race losing streak), Edwards sits behind those four drivers with wins in the wild-card standings. Edwards led the points for much of last year and then lost the title on a tiebreaker. Pundits are wondering what happened to his team. Given the consistency of teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, who are first and third in the points standings, Edwards’ performance can’t be blamed on the equipment. Maybe every year should be a contract year for Edwards, as last year was, if it means the difference between running up front and bringing up the rear.
3. Junior achievement
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has exhibited more consistency this season than in any year of his career. In 19 starts, Junior has finished every race on the lead lap and posted 14 top 10s. His fourth-place finish at New Hampshire on Sunday — Earnhardt’s seventh top-five at the Magic Mile — shaved his points deficit behind the leader Kenseth to 16.
4. What will he do?
Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t finalized its sponsorship lineup for 2013. So where does that leave Logano, whose contract expires at the end of this year?
“Obviously, right now we look at all our options out there in trying to do whatever we can do to have the best opportunity for my future,” Logano said on Friday. “That's talking to as many people as we can and seeing what's available."
Certainly, the latest dilemma with AJ Allmendinger, who is serving a temporary suspension for a failed drug test, could make Logano a top candidate for Penske Racing’s No. 22 car should that become available.
5. Waiting game
Dodge still appears to be up in the air regarding its NASCAR plans for 2013. Without sounding like a broken record, Dodge racing would love nothing better than to remain in the game. However, parent company Fiat will have the final say. Several current NASCAR organizations have spoken to Dodge, as has IndyCar owner Michael Andretti. But it is highly unlikely that Andretti would make the jump to stock cars without having a fully funded factory team.
6. Get your motor running
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's engine contract runs out with Earnhardt Childress Racing Technologies at the end of this season. Sources in the garage say Ganassi is considering switching to Hendrick engines for 2013. One EGR rep insists that no decision has been made and likely will not be until October. As for EGR going completely turnkey by outsourcing engines and chassis, the individual scoffed insisting the cost would be prohibitively expensive.
7. Generation next
Speaking of EGR, protege Kyle Larson is expected to add at least three more Camping World Truck Series races to his schedule before the end of the year. Would like to hear more from the Blaney camp regarding Ryan.
8. Back to the wind tunnel
There will be no rest for the manufacturers this week as representatives from all four partners will meet at Aerodyne Wind Tunnel in Mooresville, NC, to test the 2013 cars one last time. NASCAR is hopeful that this will be the final run so teams have the exact dimensions to build cars.
9. Rearview mirror
When team owner Roger Penske was asked on Sunday how disappointing Allmendinger’s failed drug test and subsequent suspension have been, the longtime racer put the latest road bump into perspective.
“I go back over so many years,” Penske said. “I’ve lost drivers at races, which, obviously, is a lot worse than this situation. I deal with business every day. We have adversities. We have situations come up similar in business where we’ve had to deal with it. To me, we’re going to move on.”
10. Second chances
After funding dried up for Sam Hornish Jr. following the 2010 Sprint Cup season, it appeared another experiment with another open-wheel driver had simply unraveled as expected. But Penske never forgot what Hornish had accomplished for him on the open-wheel side, with a championship and an Indy 500 win from the pole in 2006. After the driver won his first stock car race in the Nationwide Series after 141 starts between the two series, Penske admitted the company did Hornish a disservice by rushing him into Cup. Hornish never gave up. He was the Captain’s go-to guy when Allmendinger was sidelined at Daytona. No, Hornish isn’t going to set the world on fire. But long after NASCAR’s A-listers had helicoptered out of the track and the transporters were packed up and ready to head South on Sunday, the 33-year-old Defiance, Ohio-native stood outside the trailer waiting patiently for that one last interview before calling it a day.
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