Marcos Ambrose, on a dark and cloudy day at Sonoma (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Whither Robby Gordon?
It's been more than three months since he was last in a NASCAR garage.
And he says after Sunday's race here he might be not be back again until next February at Daytona
Yes, Baja legend and Dakar star Robby Gordon, now 42, and a NASCAR headliner since 1991, as well as one of the world's premier off-road racers, says Sunday's Save Mart 350 will be his last NASCAR race of the year. And he's leaving his stock car future in some doubt, as he focuses on his own brand new racing series.
Gordon has been idled since failing to qualify at Bristol in March. This weekend's race will be only his third of the year. He finished 41st at Daytona and 41st at Phoenix.
Robby Gordon: at another crossroads? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Ford's Marcos Ambrose, who won Watkins Glen last summer, edged Chevy teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, on a cool and very cloudy day, to win the pole Friday for Sunday's 110-lap race, which is shaping up as another Rick Hendrick versus Jack Roush showdown. While temperatures here can easily top 100 for this event, the weekend weather is expected to continue in the high 60s and low 70s, unseasonably cool, but certainly delightful at Sonoma Raceway.
Ambrose may be on a role; he won the Michigan pole a week ago at a sizzling 203 mph.
Ambrose' future seems a bit up in the air, as far as car brands go. Ambrose is driving Fords, but that contract is up at the end of this season, and there is speculation Ambrose and Richard Petty Motorsports may be switching to Dodge next year. After a slow start to the season, Ambrose has picked up steam lately.
"We gave one away out here, so maybe it's time to get one back," Petty said, with a laugh, referring to the 2010 race that Ambrose was leading in the final miles, only to have his engine stall as he tried to save gas to make it to the finish.
"I've seen a lot of qualifying laps, but that was the smoothest and easiest I've ever seen," crew chief Todd Parrott said. "I am in awe of that lap."
Jimmie Johnson: got to be wild to be fast at Sonoma (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kevin Harvick says this twisty road course has become the roughest-driving track on the tour the past few years.
Ambrose agrees, saying he expects rough play: "We have some guys mad at each other, and this is a great track to really lay down some payback.
"At the same time, getting out of this place unscathed is pretty hard to do.
"It is just a tough track; it is technical, tight, and has quite a few cautions where we all get together on these double file restarts.
"You have to drive very aggressively... and contact is inevitable. I just go as fast as I can and try to get out of Dodge.
"I try to not make enemies out there; I try to be the guy out front."
Blocking has become part of the game here, and drivers don't like it.
How much to block, Ambrose says, "is gut feel for sure.
"You can mess up a corner and have to defend your spot because you feel like you are going to pull away over a two, three or four-lap period if you don't make another mistake.
"There are moments you just have to defend your spot because someone is slowing in front of you and had to check up, or you made a mistake and had to lift.
"But consistent blocking, guys just get sick of it and will dump you for it. We know the rule -- It is a self-made rule and we police it ourselves.
"If the guy behind you feels you have been a #$@, he will get you out of the way."
Pole winner Marcos Ambrose (L) and Joey Logano (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One man here who would love to be part of that part of the game is Robby Gordon, though it's unclear just what his equipment will let him do here.
And Robby Gordon isn't the only Gordon on the hot seat at this point in the season; Jeff Gordon too has found himself in an unusual situation -- so deep in the points that he has to win, and win several times, if he expected to make the fall playoffs.
Roush's Matt Kenseth is atop the Sprint Cup standings, and teammate Greg Biffle is third, sandwiching Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr. And Johnson sits fourth. Jeff Gordon, who hasn't won since Atlanta last Labor Day weekend, has had terrible luck this season.
Hendrick teams appeared to catch fire six weeks ago, and they've won four of the last five tour events, with Johnson, Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne...leaving Jeff Gordon playing catch-up.
Brian Vickers, back in action (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In what is hopefully just a footnote, Goodyear has a new tire here this weekend, the tire used at Martinsville and Watkins Glen, which is supposed to provide some better grip up off the corners. Goodyear, after last weekend's tire issues at Michigan, have scheduled a 15-team test at that track for July 30th, the day after the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis; that test is to be a 'confirmation' test of a computer-tested setup for the Aug. 19th race.
At the other end of the garage, however the Robby Gordon storyline was one of the day's tops, if more than a bit murky.
Robby Gordon has long been one of this sport's more intriguing characters, colorful, sometimes outrageous, certainly extremely talented, and usually willing, even eager, to speak his mind. All of which has made him so popular with the media.
This year, though, Robby Gordon seems at a crossroads.
Robby Gordon, curiously says he's not planning on running Watkins Glen, the tour's other road race, and a tour event that he won in 2003.
And for a man who wears confidence like a driver's suit, and who exudes positive vibes, no matter what the situation, Robby Gordon here seems a bit up in the air.
"This could very easily be our last Cup race this year, but if it is, we'll be back at Daytona for 2013," Robby Gordon says.
"This is the big series, this is the big game. But at this point in my career, does it make sense to run all 36 events? No. We'll probably run a handful of races each season from here on out, unless something crazy happens and we land a big program. I'd love to do that, and we've got the capability and expertise to do that...but I just don't think that's going to happen."
Robby Gordon: Sonoma's his last stop this season? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However without a Detroit manufacturer contract of some sort, to work with, it's virtually impossible to play the NASCAR game anymore.
Robby Gordon is currently with Dodge....and Dodge executives have said nothing about any 2013 plans, and won't even confirm any commitment to NASCAR next season.
Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford have not expressed any interest in adding teams.
Robby Gordon swept both NASCAR road races in 2003, here at Sonoma and at Watkins Glen, and he finished second here in 2010.
However he struggled on the tour in 2011, and this season he's all but vanished.
A month ago he announced a major new business venture, a stadium-based dirt-truck series, which he says will be his focus the rest of this year, that and his SPEED energy drink business.
Robby Gordon was once an expected powerhouse every time the tour went to road courses. And for a man who had been focusing on this event as his 'return' to the tour, Gordon Friday wasn't much of a player.
Robby Gordon was not pleased with practice, and he said he was sweating qualifying. "If I make one mistake I go home," Gordon said. "When you're outside the top-35 in points (Gordon is 50th), you have to run two different races.
"When you're not running every week, you start behind the eight-ball.
"Now we have to work on fuel mileage and rear tire wear.
"I'm going to have to qualify inside the top-20 if we're going to have any shot at this, probably inside the top-15."
He wound up qualifying a weak 34th.
It's not easy being an independent on the stock car tour (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
At Daytona in February Robby Gordon had talked about trying to find business partners, and perhaps sell shares of stock.
Then he had engine trouble with NASCAR's new electronic fuel injection at Bristol, where his car wouldn't fire for practice or qualifying.
Since then he's spent more than three months on the sidelines, working on his other business ventures.
And there is the sense that he is slowly fading out of this part of the sport.
What the future holds for Robby Gordon in NASCAR is unclear.
Now if one of the sport's major car makers -- Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota or Dodge -- or a major sponsor were to come along, Gordon could change his game plan to run just a handful of races each year. However otherwise Gordon says the economics of this sport have simply become too much.
That is a rather remarkable development, considering that Gordon's race shops, in Charlotte and in Orange, Calif., are capable of building a variety of winning machines.
Robby Gordon says he will now be focusing on his new StadiumSuperTrucks series, an IROC-type 'stadium' tour that he announced three weeks ago for 2013. That series -- http://bit.ly/O6piJu -- is a work-in-progress that Gordon has high hopes for. And he's got a 'test' session planned for early July, to help promote the series.
Just how successful that stadium series may be is unclear. Gordon seems to be banking on big success, promising 50,000 fans at each of the events, which he says will certainly catch Detroit's eye.
However there are still a number of holes in the game plan, holes Gordon will be spending the rest of the year filling.
Logically Gordon would be using his NASCAR Cup team as part of the marketing plan for the SuperTruck series. Yet he isn't.
Gordon says "I love this sport. I love NASCAR...This sport is what America is all about. And it has the eyeballs and the people.
"It's just the economy has us all in a jam. We haven't made any money in NASCAR in a long time."
When asked at Daytona how many Sprint Cup events he had on his schedule, he said "As much as I can do without going broke.
"I promise you I won't go broke doing this."