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A vagabond's shot at glory

Robby Gordon drove for nine teams before he landed a top ride at RCR.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

Robby Gordon, a versatile driver with a knack for road racing, was a substitute in position for his first Winston Cup win last year at Sears Point Raceway when it appeared his flaw, hot-headed stubbornness, got the best of him.

It was a turning point.

A year later, he has a top-notch ride. And he would let Kevin Harvick go by.

Gordon, whose bratty temperament often overshadowed his considerable talent, was between rides when owner Jim Smith tabbed him to drive the No.7 Ford on the twisting circuit in Northern California. Gordon took the lead late and was pulling away when the lapped car of Harvick showed up on his bumper with fresh tires.

Harvick wanted back on the lead lap; Gordon didn't cooperate.

On Lap 102 of 112, Harvick ran out of patience. He dived inside Gordon and their cars bumped, knocking Gordon outside the racing groove. Second-place Tony Stewart took advantage and passed both. Stewart won; Gordon was second and widely criticized for racing Harvick.

"I was racing Kevin real hard, trying to keep him behind me because I wanted to keep a car between Tony and me," Gordon, 33, said last week. "And Tony got around both of us and shut us out.

"It was a turning point. I had a really good race car and probably could have done a couple things different and won the race. But I didn't lose my cool and still finished second. I learned something at that race. I've got to be a little bit smarter of a guy at the wheel and not let stuff like that bother me."

Gordon's best career finish to that point, in a middle-of-the-pack car no less, changed opinions of him in the Winston Cup garage and helped him land a ride with Richard Childress Racing. Less than two months after tangling at Sears Point (now known as Infineon Raceway; its name was changed Saturday), Gordon and Harvick were teammates.

"We obviously have to work together if we're going to build this team and be competitive," Gordon said. "I have no grudge against him. I don't see a problem there."

An interim driver for eight races at RCR in 2001, Gordon was a threat to win on the road course at Watkins Glen until the telemetry box in his car caught fire. Named the full-time driver of the No.31 Chevrolet with two races left, he celebrated his first victory in the season finale at New Hampshire.

Though all three RCR teams are struggling this season -- Jeff Green is 23rd, Gordon 27th and Harvick 34th in points -- and Childress is rumored to be fed up with his drivers, the owner said contract extensions for Harvick and Gordon are in the works. He would like to see Gordon in the organization "for a long, long time."

"Right now, Robby Gordon is a little better than the cars and the team we're giving him," said Childress, who recently swapped Harvick's and Gordon's crews looking for chemistry. "I'm very pleased with everything Robby's done. We just have to get our cars better. If we give him the right equipment, he'll be winning races."

A gypsy in the Winston Cup garage for nearly a decade, Gordon drove 52 races for nine owners before catching Childress' eye. Recognizing the job as his best opportunity, Gordon vowed to listen more, demand less.

"That was my attitude when I went to Richard Childress Racing last year and we won at Loudon, N.H.," Gordon said. "These guys have won six championships. I'm going to let them do their jobs and I'm going to do mine to the best of my ability, which is to drive the race car and tell them what I feel and where I'm having any problems."

Childress likes what he sees.

"Robby's an aggressive driver and a very intelligent driver," he said. "That could have been one of his problems in the past with people not understanding him. He really understands the race car and knows what he wants."

Though Gordon no longer considers himself a road-course specialist, it remains his forte.

"I think I can pass in every corner there, and I know four corners I can pass even fast cars, Gordon said of Infineon Raceway. "And I've got a niche for that final turn. I need that one."

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