MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Jeff Gordon has been in a goofy mood this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
He openly mocked Jack Roush’s indignation over the “intellectual espionage” behind a missing sway bar. Then, after winning the pole for Sunday’s Goody’s 500, he acted as his own emcee for the media center interviews until a NASCAR functionary arrived to assume that role.
Gordon also brushed aside questions about the relatively slow start to the 2008 Sprint Cup season of he and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. Last year they combined for 16 victories and 1-2 championship finish, with Johnson winning a second straight title.
But this year neither has won. Johnson has only one top-10 finish and is 13th in points after five races. Gordon is 14th and has two top 10s but also has failed to finish two races.
“Yeah, it has been terrible,” Gordon said. “It’s awful to be 14th in the points five races in. I can’t believe how rough it is over at Hendrick Motorsports.”
Gordon was pegging the sarcasm chip, of course, and it is a little ridiculous to go around screaming like your hair’s on fire over how Gordon and Johnson have done so far.
“I don’t mind people saying hey, you are 14th in points, you aren’t having the type of year you had last year,” Gordon said. “But it bothers me when somebody says we aren’t running well, because we have been running great.”
Gordon was battling for second place at Las Vegas when he and Matt Kenseth crashed, leading to a 35th-place finish. He also had a problem in the suspension system at Daytona and wound up 39th.
“Put those things aside, we have been running strong, we have been leading laps and running up front,” Gordon said.
“But, the competition has stepped up and we have to step up along with it as well. We certainly need to be better.”
Martinsville is a good place for Gordon and Johnson to get well. Between them, the teammates have won eight of the past 10 races here and neither has finished worse than ninth in any of those.
“We’ll just try to get into a rhythm and get that consistency going and get ourselves where we need to be solidly in the Chase,” Gordon said.
“Last year we started off the season strong and ran strong all the way through but didn’t win the championship.”
Gordon said he was on vacation during the off weekend between Bristol and Martinsville. Team owner Rick Hendrick went fishing. But Johnson and his team spent much of their interim testing, trying to get a better handle on why, aside from a second-place finish at California, they’ve been nothing more than mediocre.
“Well, we’re certainly learning,” said Johnson, who starts 10th Sunday.
“I think that we all get sucked into things that we think are predictable and we forget that this is racing and nothing is predictable. It’s so easy to lose whatever you have. It’s just a tenth or two-tenths of a second that can take you from a hero to a zero.
“We certainly have gotten off to a slower start than we wanted to. We’re not trying to distract anyone and, to be honest, we don’t like where we are either. We’ve been doing this long enough and we’re trying not to overreact.
"But we still are reacting and we’re trying to get back to our winning ways and the high expectations we have for ourselves outside of the expectations anyone else has for us.”
Johnson and Gordon went through last year’s Chase battling each other for a championship. By halfway through the 10-race playoff, those teammates and Clint Bowyer had separated from the pack and the rest of the top tier of teams, whether they admit it or not, started getting their programs lined up for 2008. Johnson and Gordon didn’t have that luxury.
Maybe that’s why they’ve sputtered a bit early this year, or maybe it’s the fact that the sun doesn’t shine on the same dog every day.
Hendrick warned everybody after his team’s almost magical 2007 that you can’t count on having that many things go right at one time very often.
Gordon and Johnson have been so good for so long at Martinsville that it will be a surprise if they’re both not in the mix Sunday. If they are, does that mean the “problems” are solved? Of course not.
In the same manner, if one or both has trouble Sunday and doesn’t finish well, it might not mean they’re in big trouble as the season moves on.
But it certainly won’t be a laughing matter, either.