Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson developing healthy competition
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Jeff Gordon is Jimmie Johnson's teammate, mentor, friend and the co-owner of his car -- and he's also one of the guys trying to beat out Johnson for the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.
Gordon has been through this before, racing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte heads-up for the 1996 title, and losing by a mere 37 points.
"I wasn't as close to Terry as I am to Jimmie," Gordon said. "We had just come off a championship the year before and there was definitely some heavy rivalry going on within the organization. It got very intense."
The drive to win is still there for four-time series champion Gordon, but this championship battle is different.
"I want one of us to win that championship," Gordon said. "If I can't win it, I certainly want him to win it."
Johnson said he feels the same way.
"We each want the championship for our own reasons," Johnson said. "Jeff wants to chase (Dale) Earnhardt's mark of seven (titles) and I want my first one.
"There's a lot of competition there, but the most important thing is that we respect each other through all the competition. And, regardless of how it turns out, we're still going to be teammates at the end of it. We're still going to be friends."
Going into Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Gordon trails Johnson by just 40 points at the top of the standings. But both drivers need to regain momentum with only four events remaining until the new 10-race "Chase for the Cup" showdown begins.
For the first time, only the top 10 drivers after the 26th race of the season -- Sept. 11 in Richmond, Va. -- will be eligible to race for the title over the final 10 events.
Gordon said the biggest competition within the Hendrick team right now is not between the drivers, but rather between the crews of Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet and Johnson's No. 48 entry.
"Those guys are in the shop day in and day out," Gordon said. "I know the intensity is building in the shop. Those guys love the fact that both teams are where they're at.
"At the same time, if they wear a 48 shirt or a 24 shirt on the weekends, then that's the team they're with and who they want on top. If it continues like this down the closing few races, then it's definitely going to get interesting."
Since winning his fourth race of the year at Pocono, Johnson has faltered the last two weeks, finishing 36th at Indianapolis because of an engine failure and 40th on the road course at Watkins Glen due to a broken transmission. Gordon won for the fifth time this season at Indianapolis, but he also had late-race transmission trouble at The Glen and wound up 21st.
Johnson's lead over runner-up Gordon has been reduced from 232 points after Pocono to 40, while third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. trails by just 128. Those three will be at the front of the field Sunday, with all the other contenders for championship chase right behind, thanks to rain washing out qualifying and the lineup determined mostly by car owner points.
With the new points system in place, though, Gordon isn't worried.
"Jimmie's team still has the points lead, even with the problems they've had," Gordon said. "Having that 200-plus point lead he had didn't mean anything anyway. It's really only a five-point lead."
Following the Richmond race, NASCAR will adjust the points with the leader only five points ahead of the runner-up and the top 10 drivers separated by only 45 points.
That means the teams performing the best going into the last 10 races will have the edge in the title battle.
"It's important for both of us to be on track right now," Gordon said. "We need to do all we can to maintain the momentum we've had to this point in the season. As long as they maintain that, I think that is what's important. They'll get back on track."