SONOMA, Calif. - When Robby Gordon almost won last year's race at the Sears Point Raceway, he proved to himself he belonged on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
When he almost won the race at Watkins Glen International, he proved to car owner Richard Childress he belonged on the circuit.
And when he finally won in September at New Hampshire International Speedway, he proved to the rest of the racing fraternity he had a place in stock car racing.
What Gordon didn't realize, however, is acceptance can be fleeting. The demonstration period can last throughout a career.
After making brief and generally disastrous stints with car owners Junie Donlavey, Robert Yates, Michael Kranefuss, Carl Haas, Dale Earnhardt, Felix Sabates, Buz McCall, Morgan-McClure, Jim Smith and his own team, Gordon has found an improbable niche with Childress.
"Robby Gordon is a lot better (of a driver) than the team and the cars we're giving him," Childress said. "We've got a great team, but we've just got to figure out what we've got to do to get these cars working. I'm very pleased with what he's done. I'm just not as happy with what we've been able to do with our cars. If we can get him the right equipment, he'll be winning races."
Gordon hasn't won since last year's season finale. With only one top-10 finish, he really hasn't been close. But Childress sees a spark in Gordon and a lot of promise. So much, he's moved his best people - crew chief Kevin Hamlin and the rest of the "Flying Aces" pit crew that helped Dale Earnhardt win six of his seven championships. It was a move that has many believing Gordon has supplanted Kevin Harvick as the lead driver among Childress' three teams that also includes Jeff Green.
The team will return to Sears Point on Sunday for the Dodge/Save Mart 350. The two-mile road course nestled in northern California wine country is exactly the kind of track Gordon likes best. He led a year ago when Harvick bumped him with 11 laps to go. That allowed Tony Stewart to sneak past for the win, while Gordon wound up second.
"Last year was a bit of a turning curve for me," Gordon said. "Running as fast as we did and being competitive as we were changed a lot of people's view. I look at Sears Point a year ago as a turning point for me. We probably could have done a couple of things differently and won the race. But even after the way it ended up, I didn't lose my cool and still finished second. I'm proud of that finish."
The former CART IndyCar driver remains impatient. His team has made big strides since the first race, but it's not enough. He wants to run up front and win races. Building for the future seems like waste of time.
"I'd be kidding you if I said I was happy with the on-track performance of the team," Gordon said. "I'm not. I don't think anybody is at Richard Childress Racing. I think there have been a couple of things that have hung us out a little bit.
"I'm a little disappointed, but I'm not throwing a temper tantrum and giving up. I know I can do this."
Gordon is a road racer at heart, although he said he considered himself a bona fide stock car driver once he cut his IndyCar ties. His background in making both left- and right-handed turns should make him one of the favorites for Sunday's race.
"You have to be easy on the brakes," Gordon said of the 10-turn road course. "And they're long races. You've got to save something for the end. That's something I've learned over the last couple of years.
"I don't consider myself a road course specialist any more. Five years ago, I would have."
Gordon's transformation from a reckless free spirit into a calculating stock car driver is something that impresses Childress the most.
"Robby is an aggressive driver and a very intelligent driver," Childress said. "I think that could have been one of his problems, if he had any, in the past with that people didn't understand. He really understands the race car. He knows what he wants. We all believe in him because he shows us what he wants in the car and we do the best to give it to him. He has a lot of traits of being great, that's for sure."
Even if he has to prove it every week.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.