Struggling Gordon a casualty of bad pit stops, bad timing

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Jeff Gordon claimed he was actually "relieved" to plummet from sixth to ninth in the standings Sunday after wrecking out of the 3M Performance 400.

"Now we can just not worry about anything," he said, meaning he can go for broke, "just go all out," through the final three races till the Chase.

But the fully frazzled look on his face precluded his putting the best possible face on a disastrous day for him and the rest of the sputtering Hendrick Motorsports team.

He wasn't so miffed at his collision with teammate Jimmie Johnson, which knocked both out of a chance to win, as he was that "we shouldn't have been back there [in midpack] in the first place."

He'd suffered two lousy pit stops. The first was "sorry," and he admonished his crew by radio afterward.

But the second was even worse: He came in fourth, went out 16th and then was hit broadside to broadside by Johnson, who'd been bumped from the outside by Tony Stewart.

Gordon blamed no one on the track. The three-wide struggle was caused in the pits, he said.

"We should have come out of there in the top five, and just running our own race," said Gordon, who'd started the race fifth. "Instead, we're back there in the middle of the whole mess and trying to run three- and four-wide, and that's what happens."

After their broadside, Johnson, who'd started second, had to pit immediately with a severe tire rub on Lap 91 under green, and then Gordon smacked the wall hard on Lap 97.

Johnson soldiered on and wound up 17th, even after he spun on the last lap. Atypically, he bolted from Michigan International Speedway without talking with the media.

Gordon returned late in the race, but debris from his damaged car brought out a caution, and he retired it on Lap 175 of the 200.

Gordon wasn't thrilled with his spotter's work in the seconds before the Stewart-Johnson-Gordon tangle, either.

"I came off [Turn] 4, then my spotter said at the last second, 'Two cars outside of you,' and it was too late. But looking at the replay, it looked like there was still enough room. It just looked like Tony came off the wall, touched Jimmie a little bit, Jimmie kicked in, and there was no room to move."

We just can't seem to get it all lined up this year. We finally had a great car. When we've had great pit stops we haven't had the car to back it up.

-- Jeff Gordon

Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who'd started fourth, fought a loose car all race, finally smacked the wall on Lap 187, and wound up 23rd. The fourth Hendrick driver, lame duck Casey Mears, finished 18th.

At least Johnson and Earnhardt didn't lose positions in the standings, hanging onto third and fourth, respectively, while Gordon dropped three spots.

"I don't want to be where we are in the points right now," Gordon admitted, "but in some ways this is an easier position to be in, because we can go out there and run hard every weekend. We can take chances and do things that maybe get us our win.

"We've been stuck in the middle where we couldn't take a big risk -- couldn't risk fuel mileage, couldn't risk putting two tires on, we had to stay with four tires. We couldn't get too risky with our setups. All that stuff.

"You're just trying to ride along there and not make mistakes, and now a mistake is made, and I'm just glad we're running good finally."

But the No. 24 team has had trouble putting the whole combination together.

"We just can't seem to get it all lined up this year," Gordon said. "We finally had a great car. When we've had great pit stops we haven't had the car to back it up."

Earnhardt feels he's in the same boat, in lack of a complete package.

"For me it's been the same old story," he said. "We show up fast, we can't put a whole race together. So we've got to do some homework. We've got to figure out what's going on, because we sure are fast when the race starts."

So were Gordon and Johnson, early in what turned out to be another bad day for Hendrick.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.