November to Remember
When Robby Gordon battled Jeff Gordon to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race, here in 2001, some called it the battle of the Gordons. Only it was much, much more. In fact, it was named the No. 7 top moment in NHMS history in 2010.
While the world was reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, NASCAR officials postponed the event - originally scheduled for Sept. 17 - to the day after Thanksgiving Day on Friday, Nov. 23.
It was to be the first post-Thanksgiving Day race in Cup history in the modern era. And it was going to be cold.
Robby Gordon had joined Richard Childress Racing late in the summer as a substitute for Mike Skinner in the No. 31 Chevrolet.
The then 32 year-old had made the move to NASCAR after winning races and titles in off-road and open wheel Indy car races.
Jeff Gordon had clinched his fourth NASCAR Cup Championship before the Thanksgiving break. But Robby knew he was on the way to a breakthrough stock car win.
After digesting the holiday turkey and stuffing, it was off to New England to end the season for the first and likely last time.
"For me, it was pretty much back to business as usual as it could be," Gordon said at his SPEED Energy Formula Off-Road Presented by TRAXXAS Series Headquarters outside of Charlotte, N.C. "We were back in the game."
In practice "we were decent," Robby added. "I don't know that we were the fastest." In fact, he qualified 31st, echoing his car number. But he felt long runs would be his strength.
Race time came and it was "freezing cold. I wasn't too worried about the tire temperatures. NASCAR tires get to tire temp pretty fast. It was 45 degrees, that's perfect for race cars. The competition was fun. People (drivers) were sliding around."
But it was Jeff Gordon who dominated the race, leading 257 of the 300-lap race at the Magic Mile. When he slowed, for traffic, it put Robby in striking distance.
"We were a top-10 car all day long," Robby explained. "Gil (Martin his crew chief) made good calls, got us in position to race Jeff and it was time to go.
"Our toughest competition was Jeff. We were better at one point. He protected the bottom, protected the bottom (he repeated for emphasis). I had my nose there at one point and I touched him he didn't wreck - moved him up the racetrack. He was so mad about it. Normally he's pretty cool. He took himself out.
"Right after that, under caution, he ran into the back of me (and) just destroyed the front of the car. Basically my toughest competition was out," Robby said with a devilish grin.
"What he meant to do was to let me know he was mad it at me, which was fine," Robby laughed.
Jeff, one of the coolest heads in a NASCAR helmet, was furious: "I ought to take him out right now," he screamed over the radio as he headed into the pits for the penalty for bumping his rival.
"See? Everybody thought you couldn't make me mad," Jeff said after the race. "You can make me mad. That 31 certainly did today. It was a heck of a battle. It was between him and me anyway. I just wish it would have happened fair and square instead of just knocking a guy out of the way. We had some lapped traffic to go through, and you've got to be patient. I don't care if there's 15 laps to go, you've got to be patient."
Robby sailed to his first of three NASCAR Cup wins. But there were mixed emotions in victory lane.
The Associated Press reported that the crowd of 98,000 booed the winner.
"I wouldn't wreck him to win unless it was the last lap," Robby said. "I wanted to race him clean, but he slowed down to avoid (Mike Wallace.) If Jeff wants to talk to me, I'm not too concerned about it. I've seen him crash into another car to win a race."
And for car owner Richard Childress, the 2001 season couldn't have been over fast enough. He lost his driver and best friend, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, on the last lap of the season-opening Daytona 500 the previous February.
"I've still got an emptiness," he said.
Meanwhile, the yet-to-be crowned 2001 champion told the reporters what he felt about Robby.
"He should be embarrassed to win like that," Jeff said. "But hey, I understand why guys do that kind of stuff. I just wish I had taken his tire down or something so at least he wouldn't have won the race."
The unpredictable Robby Gordon, inside, was elated. After winning in just about everything on and off-the-road, he finally joined the exclusive NASCAR Cup winners club.
"I was pretty excited," Robby said. "I gave all the money away. I felt and I still feel I've been fortunate over the years to do what I get to do. That is to race cars; I build race cars (trucks), have a great shop like we do. All the good stuff."
On that chilly November day his mind and his heart went out to those first responders at the World Trade Center ground zero.
"At that time I was doing fine. I wanted to take care of people in more need then me. The fire fighters, in New York, I thought that was the right thing to do.
"It freaked Richard out when I gave the money away," he added with another big laugh.
Just another great moment at the Magic Mile.