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Thursday, December 28, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: Robby Gordon

Robby Gordon Age: 38
0 Wins, 1 top 5’s, 3 to 10’s, 10 top 15’s
9 DNF’s
Avg Start: 27.5 Avg Finish: 25.3
#7 Menard's/Jim Beam Ford Crew Chief: Greg Erwin

Mention Robby Gordon and you’ll get an array of reactions. Some think he has no talent, others think he’s one of the finest drivers in the garage. Still other people consider him reckless and a cheater. With most things, the accurate picture is somewhere in the middle. Gordon will probably always be a lightning rod for fans.

Whatever your personal opinion of Gordon, the progress his one-car team has made in two seasons is impressive. Prior to 2005 Gordon announced bold plans to run his own Cup team. After failing to qualify for races, having fickle equipment and poor finishes in 2005, the critics appeared right. Gordon built upon that rough beginning and made significant progress in 2006.

The biggest immediate obstacle was making races. Gordon successfully qualified for the Daytona 500 and the next four races to secure a top 35 starting spot. Once safely inside, Gordon went about improving his finishes. His 30th place finish didn’t fully represent how he ran in many races. His 64.9 driver rating was 26th. Several races were spoiled by DNF’s. He had a Cup worst nine. He also completed a very low 86% of the possible laps. Some of these issues were out of his control, while others were self-inflicted wounds. He had 10 top fifteen finishes and 14 finishes worse than 30th. Consistency was not present in the #7 car.

In the early part of the season Gordon had several good runs ruined by late problems. At both Atlanta and Texas he ran inside the top ten only to get trapped under caution. His first top ten came at Talladega in the spring. He added a fourth at Watkins Glen and a 10th at the fall Atlanta race to his season.

The Atlanta finish also created controversy for Gordon. Late in the race Gordon was caught throwing a piece of debris in hopes of a caution. The caution did drop, allowing him to stay on the lead lap and ultimately close out a top ten. NASCAR’s hammer also dropped, costing Gordon 50 points and $15,000. That’s still an improvement compared to thrown helmets and cursing on national TV.

Robby Gordon Motorsports is primed for more improvement next year too. He is switching from Chevy to Ford. Joining Ford will lend better manufacturer support. Instead of fighting for scraps with Chevrolet, Gordon is now one of nine cars getting support from Ford. The Yates/Roush engine package will provide better reliability. Gordon used DEI engines in 2006. This was an improvement over Menard’s engines and was a large factor in Gordon qualifying for races in 2006, but Gordon still had 3 engine blowups.

Crew Chief Greg Erwin found a speedy setup for the intermediate tracks. Now Gordon needs some luck to get his deserved finishes. He is always a favorite to win at the two road courses, and obliges when his equipment cooperates. He should also continue his strong runs at plate tracks (avg finish 13.25 in ’06). He has three career Cup wins at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Loudon. His achilles heel is short tracks. In 13 races at Martinsville his average finish is 32.9 and has not scored a top ten. Excluding Loudon, all the 1-mile and shorter tracks (Martinsville, Phoenix, Richmond, Bristol, Dover) all give Gordon problems. That's over a quarter of the schedule to struggle at.

The key is smoothing out the erratic finishes. More reliable engines will help, but Gordon must also avoid crashes and not lose control of his emotions. When he runs well, ensuring a good finish is a must. If it's not a strong track, don't try too hard and end up in a wreck. In his three full seasons with Richard Childress Racing he scored finishes of 20th, 16th, and 23rd. In his third season of ownership, his equipment should gain consistency. Geting more even results should bring him closer to this type of points finish. He is not a Chase contender, but 20-25 in points is respectable and realistic. Considering where he started two years ago that would be quite impressive.

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