Good Intentions Gone Wrong: The Robby Gordon Experiment of 1997
Every once and a while, there's a racer who stirs things up, either for good or bad reasons. As Brian Wilson once sang in a Beach Boys song called "Hang On To Your Ego," they tend to isolate their heads and stay in their safety zones, doing whatever they please.
In the case of Robby Gordon, his grand entrance into the NASCAR Cup circuit in late 1996 in preparation for the '97 season was majorly hyped but ultimately flopped in somewhat dramatic style.
"The problem with Robby is he is talking when he should be listening," car owner Felix Sabates said per Dustin Long's article on The Roanoke Times.
Call it strong, severe words, but even years following the bitter end of their professional relationship, the animated, passionate car owner is somewhat haunted by his memories with Robby Gordon's tenure with his team.
During the 1996 season, Sabates, who fielded the No. 42 ride for racer Kyle Petty since 1989, immediately signed open wheel talent Robby Gordon to his motorsports stable.
The signing looked like a steal, a great acquisition to Sabates' organization which was flourishing with recent additions like Joe Nemechek and Wally Dallenbach.
Here was Gordon, who had a solid record in IndyCar racing with his two wins, 18 top-fives, and 37 top-10's in his previous 71 starts, about to make the transition to sheet metal clad stock cars.
Although somewhat uncommon, it wasn't new in NASCAR, with drivers like Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt dabbling in Cup cars with success.
Expectations were somewhat high for the Orange, CA native, as he was joining a team that had won its share of races and flirted with title runs in 1992 and '93.
Sabates heavily invested in Gordon to triumph in Cup, even changing manufacturers from Pontiac to Chevrolet, all to get his teams, especially the No. 40 ride, into Victory Lane.
Preparing for the 1997 season, Sabates entered Gordon in a couple of events during the '96 campaign in the No. 40 First Union Chevrolet and found himself a bit flustered with the results.
Although Gordon qualified seventh at Rockingham, he'd crash out just after four laps, placing 42nd with a not so fond memory of the treacherous track.
A week later, Gordon flat out struggled at Phoenix, starting 32nd before crashing out again, finishing in the 42nd position and with his car carried out by a tow truck.
Despite these auspicious races, expectations were still high for Gordon and the No. 40 Coors Light team for a solid rookie season in 1997.
If NASCAR ever had a match that didn't quite work out well, it was with Robby Gordon and Team SABCO. Basically put, it was about the longest season for both driver and car owner, with their relationship souring faster than an uncovered plate of cheese in the fridge.
Daytona was an encouraging start for Gordon and his new team, as they started 20th, briefly ran in the top-10 before shuffling back to a 16th place finish.
Following those Daytona dreams were Rockingham and Richmond, which were somewhat rough, learning times as he placed 33rd and 28th, albeit finishing those two races.
Atlanta was the high water mark in the spring for the Gordon and Sabates union, winning the pole before slipping to a 14th place result, somewhat salvaging their inconsistent start.
After those races, the wheels came off on the Gordon Express, running into problems at Darlington before derailing completely at Martinsville in September. During that 15 race stretch, Gordon placed in the top-10 only one time, which was a fourth at Watkins Glen, a specialty for the off-road and Champ Car racer.
Additionally, Gordon had been entered in the Indianapolis 500 in a Sabates-owned entry, carrying the Coors Light colors to a 12th starting position. Looking somewhat encouraging, Gordon drove his way towards the lead pack before a mechanical failure and fire dropped him out of contention after 19 laps, finishing 29th and with serious burn injuries.
Having seen enough carnage in his shop that season, Sabates released Gordon from the No. 40 car, going through a "driver of the week" rotation before settling with Sterling Marlin for 1998, a pairing that lasted for seven solid seasons.
As for Gordon, he'd enter occasional IndyCar and NASCAR races following his release, with his future uncertain in motorsports.
About the only "claim to fame" that Gordon would garner was his Indianapolis 500 heartbreaker in 1999, in which he lost a late lead due to fuel mileage to finish a disappointing fourth.
Without a solid ride for three years, Gordon's career was resurrected in 2001, first with Larry McClure's No. 4 Kodak Chevy ride before being signed by Richard Childress originally as an emergency starter for the No. 31 car.
Proving his worth at last with a controversial but well-earned win in the season finale at Loudon, Gordon found a home at Childress' team for three years before branching out on his own in 2005, where results have been meager at best.
It's not exactly fair to call Robby Gordon a "bust" in Sprint Cup racing, as he has three victories, including a road course sweep in 2003.
However, for all the excitement surrounding the driver whose talent is tremendous in an open-wheel and off-road vehicle, steady success in a stock car has been hard to come by for the man who's done things only his way.