LAS VEGAS – Jeff Gordon led all but 48 laps of Sunday's race before Jimmie Johnson snookered his teammate again.
But there's that number -- 48. Whether you believe in numerology or not, the No. 48 has been a recurring theme for Gordon ever since he took his protege Johnson to team co-owner Rick Hendrick for approval back in 2001. That was the year Gordon won his fourth and final Cup title. Since then, the spotlight has shone on the No. 48.
In the last nine seasons, Johnson has won four titles, 49 races and posted 119 top fives, 182 top 10s and 23 poles. Over that same period, Gordon has no titles, 24 wins, 118 top fives, 173 top 10s and 25 poles. While the top-five and top-10 finishes are relatively similar, the stark difference is revealed in the victories and championships.
So are there days that Gordon regrets making the introduction?
"Today I do," Gordon said Sunday after finishing third at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "You know, five, 10 years from now when I'm cashing in on it, I'm not. Somebody once told me that, you know, if you're gonna get beat, make sure you're getting a piece of it. You know, that's one positive to take out of it."
All joking aside, it's compelling to ponder just how different Gordon's numbers might be right now if Johnson had never come aboard. The No. 48 was a carbon copy of the operation the No. 24 team established through the course of 10 seasons.
When comparing the two programs, Johnson admits it comes down to "the people."
"We all have the same equipment," Johnson said. "The sport is closer today than it has ever been in the history of the sport. You go through the big teams, the sponsorships are the same, the budgets are the same, we all have the same tools, we all have the same cars.
"It boils down to the people that are putting the stuff together and how they're working together. Starting with Rick and the people he's compiled, [crew chief] Chad [Knaus], myself, the way it all works. It really boils down to people."
Knaus was one of the original members of the No. 24 team. He learned under Ray Evernham, Gordon's former crew chief who led the team to three of its four titles, what it took to win championships. And while Gordon's crew chief Steve Letarte had a similar upbringing under the Hendrick Motorsports roof, transforming the top-five finishes into wins has been a struggle for the No. 24 squad.
But Gordon is far from giving up. While finishing third would upset most racers, on Sunday having a solid run seemed to fuel Gordon, even though he was watching his teammate take the checkered flag again.
"It doesn't matter to me who it is out there, whether it's our own teammate or whether it's a competitor, you want to go out there and compete against the best and you want to beat the best," Gordon said. "And I feel like our best days with our 24 team over the years, we're going up against Mark Martin when he was at Roush, Dale Earnhardt Sr. when he was at Childress, you know, Dale Jarrett at Yates.
"So while it's coming in-house, it's still another competitor. And it drives us. It inspires us. It motivates us. The reason you saw us perform and dominate the way we did today is because of those guys pushing us. We don't take that lightly. We're just like every other competitor out there -- we are pissed off about it."
Hopefully, that fire will be the impetus for Gordon to carry his team to the top again.
GET YOUR MOTORS RUNNING ...
TRD elected to change out the engines in the Nos. 83 (Brian Vickers), 82 (Scott Speed), 47 (Marcos Ambrose), 00 (David Reutimann) and 56 (Martin Truex Jr.) Toyotas on Thursday morning prior to the Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Several issues have arisen since the start of the season with the No. 47 dropping a valve in the Daytona 500 and blowing a gasket in Fontana. The No. 56 car broke a timing belt in Fontana.
On Friday, three of the cars qualified 31st or worse. Michael Waltrip Racing's Reutimann, who put forth the best qualifying effort of the group at 17th, finished 13th on Sunday but admitted the car "just seemed to be off."
J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said the company has not had an issue with parts this season, but opted to change the engine in Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota before the race in Fontana as a precautionary measure. JGR builds all of their engines in-house.
Where can start-and-park teams save a tremendous amount of money throughout the year? Tires and engines. At an average of $1,800 a set, tires add up. While teams are only required to buy two sets of tires per race, top teams at Vegas used approximately 14 sets of tires throughout the course of a weekend. That adds up to over $25,000.
A start-and-park team can use one set of tires to practice and qualify and the second set for a fuel run for $3,600. If you're Phoenix Racing and suffered a "vibration" after 23 laps Sunday, a payday of $79,431 will easily cover two sets of tires for the No. 09.
But given that NASCAR is now confiscating the engines from the first non-wrecked car in the garage, the practice could prove costly. Phoenix Racing purchased engines from Ernie Elliott (a cheaper alternative to leasing engines at $100,000 per race) in hopes to running the majority of the season -- just not the majority of laps. To rebuild the engines following an inspection could cost a minimum of $25,000.
NUMBERS GAME II
Four drivers have top-10 finishes in all three races -- Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle.
WOULD YOU BELIEVE THAT ...
Jimmie Johnson's next win (50th) will tie him with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 11th on the all-time win list?
Joey Logano is the top driver in the points standings at Joe Gibbs Racing and the top driver for Toyota?
Points leader Kevin Harvick has not won a points race in 110 races?
Scott Speed is higher in the points standings than Red Bull teammate Brian Vickers?
Paul Menard is the top Richard Petty Motorsports racer?
Seven of the 2009 Chase drivers are currently outside the top 12 in points?