Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon battled it out in the Subway 500, continuing their private chase for the Nextel Cup
GIVEN THE tendency of NASCAR drivers to speak in sponsor-praising platitudes, it would be easy to dismiss the accolades that Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson routinely heap upon each other as so much p.r. spin. And so we should. For although they are teammates and friends, they also are locked in a fierce battle for the Nextel Cup, with Gordon leading Johnson for the top spot in the Chase by only 53 points after the latter's victory on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. With so much on the line, bland comments such as "If I'm going to beat Jeff, I've got to bring my A game" are ludicrous. But if the two drivers insist on hewing to their I'm-O.K.-you're-O.K. shtick when they're away from the track, there's no hiding the ferocity of their rivalry when they're on it.
In their front-running duel in Sunday's Subway 500, Gordon and Johnson distilled the 2007 Cup campaign to its essence: a mano a mano fight from beginning to end. For the second time this season Johnson got the better of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate at the tiny, .526-of-a-mile track, earning his series-best seventh victory, while Gordon finished third despite leading a race-high 168 laps. The result had the dual effect of shrinking Gordon's lead over Johnson by 15 points and significantly expanding the two drivers' margins over the rest of the field—with just four races left. It's becoming clear that one of these two is going to win it all. "We're obviously not running at their level and haven't been all season," says Clint Bowyer, who finished ninth and is now third overall, trailing Gordon by 115 points.
He's right. Indeed, until Ryan Newman moved into second place by bumping his way past Gordon with 12 laps remaining, Sunday's race was almost a replay of last April's Martinsville event. In that outing Johnson and Gordon finished one-two after a tense paint-trading battle over the final laps in which Gordon repeatedly rammed Johnson's rear fender—a move drivers refer to as "using the chrome horn"—in an effort to get by. But this time, unlike last spring, Gordon didn't have the faster car, and he gave way willingly when Johnson came to his left rear fender on Lap 456.
That was a relief to owner Rick Hendrick, who nervously watched the finish from pit road. Hendrick's presence was a gentle reminder to his drivers to keep things clean. Back in April, Gordon had been furious at the way Johnson—whom the four-time champ had once mentored—had blocked him from the win. It was the only time this season that their rivalry threatened to boil over into a public spat, and it quickly passed. "The point is, you shouldn't have to have anybody let you by," says Alan Gustafson, the crew chief for fellow Hendrick driver Kyle Busch. "I don't think there's two other teammates out there who could handle this situation. Jeff and Jimmie see the big picture."
The big picture now is four more races, all to be run at tracks where both drivers have had success. Gordon's cushion is comfortable enough for him to hang on if he continues to reel off top five and top 10 finishes, two things he has done better than anybody else on the circuit this season. But he can afford to make no mistake. Johnson will be right there the rest of the way.
ONLY AT SI.COM Mark Beech's Power Rankings and Racing Fan columns.
1 Lost in the Chase hoopla on Sunday was a solid run by Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished eighth and even led nine laps. "It shows we're making improvements with the car and he's getting more comfortable," says crew chief Donnie Wingo.
2 It was a big week for Greg Biffle. On Oct. 17 he married his longtime girlfriend, Nicole Lunders (above), at a resort in Bluffton, S.C. Four days later he finished a surprising seventh at Martinsville, his third top 10 of the Chase and his first ever at NASCAR's oldest track. "This was a win," he said afterward. "I got it down on how to brake, and I learned from watching Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth."
DAVID E. KLUTHO (CARS)
TIGHT Gordon (Dupont car and inset left) and Johnson are close on and off the track.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (INSET)
[See caption above]
WALTER G ARCE/ASP/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BIFFLE)