From the Marbles - NASCAR

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You can debate who's the greatest driver now running in NASCAR. But there's absolutely no doubt who's the hungriest.

Jeff Gordon, seemingly in the twilight of his career and an afterthought in an age of dominators like Jimmie Johnson and next-great-things like Denny Hamlin, is driving with an intensity none of his teammates or competitors can match this year. But like a Greek tragedy on wheels, Gordon is coming up short week after week, bringing the best car to the track and leaving in second place ... or in pieces.

Monday's rain-delayed race in Texas marked a defining chapter in Gordon's snakebit 2010. He led almost twice as many laps as anybody else on the track, often putting up to six seconds between himself and his closest competition.

Most significantly, he reared up on Jimmie Johnson, his own teammate and protege, racing Johnson hard throughout the afternoon. At one point, the two even came to the NASCAR equivalent of a shoving match, banging doors in frustration at one another:

Afterward, Johnson spoke on television in the tones of someone a little surprised at taking a shot from someone he considered a colleague: "I'm pretty disappointed in how he was racing me today. We'll get to the bottom of it and sort it out." Johnson indicated that he didn't want this disagreement to take on new life in the press, but repeated his "disappointed" line later in the media center.

Gordon, for his part, wasn't particularly concerned about hurting Johnson's feelings, saying over his radio that Johnson was already "treated different than anyone else." Given that Gordon is the guy who brought Johnson into the Hendrick Motorsports fold, and that he owns a part of the 48 car, the boiling-over rage is a sign that Gordon has no interest in surrendering the rest of his career to Johnson.

"I guess he thought I was being too aggressive," Gordon said afterward. "I don't know, he just drove into my door. It ended up costing him." Gordon noted that he was so pleased with his own car, he didn't much care what the lesser cars around him were doing: "When you have a race car like that, you don't [give ground to] teammates and friends out there, [you] race hard. That is what Jimmie has had."

But Gordon's problems were about to get much larger than just a teammate's hurt feelings. After a late four-tire pit stop that actually put him behind the 48, Gordon got collected in a major wreck that involved a who's-who of NASCAR: Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray and several others. (See video of the wreck right here.)

Gordon fumed and cursed over his radio, and as soon as he could, leaped out of his car to confront Stewart. But Stewart, amazingly enough, remained calm, putting a hand on Gordon's shoulder. Later, Stewart apologized and took full responsibility for the wreck, even though replays indicated that he may not have been at fault.

It's been a rough year for Gordon. An unfortunate decision to take two tires when Johnson took four cost Gordon the win at Vegas, another week where he had the best car on the track. And NASCAR's new green-white-checker rule, which resets the field to attempt to finish races under green, has collected Gordon two weeks in a row -- at Martinsville and Phoenix -- taking certain to near-certain wins away from him and placing them in the hands of Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.

Hamlin, for his part, won his second race in three weeks, and more significantly, won less than three weeks after undergoing knee surgery. Coming just one week after a Phoenix race in which he probably should have gotten out of the car because of post-surgical pain, Hamlin's victory at Texas was a definitive statement that he's part of NASCAR's future. 

But before then, NASCAR's past isn't quite past. Gordon hasn't won a championship since 2001, so it's easy to write him off as past his prime. But the truth is, he's finished out of the top 10 in the final standings only once since 1993, his first full year in NASCAR, and that was an 11th place in 2005. He had a near-certain championship in 2007 vanish in the Chase points reset -- another instance of the rules breaking against him -- and while he hasn't won a race in more than a year, he's come agonizingly close, week after week.

It's only a matter of time before Gordon gets back into victory lane, and from there, a championship isn't a bad bet either. Certainly, Gordon will have to go through Johnson to get a fifth Cup. But as Monday afternoon showed, teammate or no teammate, Gordon has no problem going right at the 48.

NASCAR has been waiting for years for someone to dethrone Johnson, pinning hopes on Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, among others. But perhaps the guy who's going to knock him off the throne is the guy who put him there in the first place.

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