DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Alone in his tent in the African desert, Robby Gordon realized he had a lot of growing up to do.
''Sometimes I make dumb decisions because I still have that preschooler mentality: 'If you push me, I'll push you back,''' Gordon said. ''I've realized that's something I internally have to work on.''
The time is now for Gordon to stop acting like a child because he's launching a risky venture this season trying to field his own race team.
The driver-owner combination has not been very successful at NASCAR's highest level. Ricky Rudd called it quits in 1999, Bill Elliott closed his operation in 2000 and Brett Bodine did the same in 2003.
Since then, no driver has been bold enough to put his own money on the line against the heavily funded super teams organizations with as many as four Nextel Cup entries and a slew of engineers, accountants and sponsor-seekers.
But Gordon has always been a risk-taker. When someone tells him he can't do it, the first thing he does is try to prove them wrong. Only this decision is already showing signs of backfiring: Gordon is in danger of not making the season-opening Daytona 500, considered NASCAR's biggest race of the year.
His No. 7 Chevrolet showed up at Daytona last weekend with an illegal engine part that NASCAR quickly confiscated and will penalize him for. It put Gordon behind in qualifying preparations, and he was forced to borrow an engine from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to use Sunday.
But the DEI engines were uncharacteristically short on horsepower, and Gordon ended up 38th on the speed chart.
Because new qualifying procedures guarantee a starting spot to any team in the top 35 in points last season and Gordon is considered a new team with no points he must now race his way into the Daytona 500 in one of Thursday's two qualifying events.
He'll be one of 18 drivers battling for the final four spots in the field.
''Obviously we have a huge obstacle in front of us right now,'' Gordon said. ''But we know we can be competitive once we battle through the new-team blues.''
Why would Gordon even try this?
After all, he did it once before and failed, folding his personally owned team midway through the 2000 season. He was considered lucky when car owner Richard Childress picked him up for the final 10 races of the 2001 season.
It was a tryout of sorts, and Gordon passed by scoring his first career Cup victory in the 2001 finale by brashly bumping Jeff Gordon out of the way for a win. Childress rewarded him with a three-year contract that produced another two wins and 22 top-10 finishes.
But Gordon likes to be his own boss. So he and Childress parted ways last season, and Gordon formed Robby Gordon Motorsports.
Contrary to popular opinion, Childress said the three seasons together were not unpleasant despite Gordon's clashes with RCR golden-boy Kevin Harvick and the intentional wreck Gordon caused last September that ended Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield's championship hopes.
Gordon realized he needed to make changes while doing one of the extracurricular activities Childress frowned upon.
Competing last month in the Dakar Rally, Gordon became the first American to win a stage when he took the opening leg. But he wrecked on Day 6 and spent the final 10 days as a support vehicle for his teammates.
It meant Gordon had to pull over along roadsides in Africa and wait for his teammates to arrive. Then, he'd take the broken parts off their cars and replace them with the good parts from his car. They would continue on, while Gordon would wait for his own car to again be repaired.
At night, he slept alone in a sleeping bag in his tent in the Mojave Desert with nothing to interrupt his self-analysis.
''It gave me 10 days to mature,'' he said. ''Not that 10 days is going to fix me, but it gave me a lot of time to think.
''You know the old saying your parents taught you? Think before you open your mouth? I couldn't get that down and it has taken me a long time to get there. I am still not 100 percent there. But at 36, I am thinking about it now before I pop off and say something.''
His career may depend on it. Some of his sponsorship agreements carry clauses in them to protect the companies from being embarrassed by Gordon.
Jim Beam, new to NASCAR this season, doesn't want a repeat of last September when Gordon retaliated against Greg Biffle by intentionally wrecking him, and collecting two championship-contending cars at the same time.
''I didn't feel bad about that at the time,'' Gordon said. ''But I do now and I'm impressed that we've been able to recover and still end up with great partners because some of the sponsors definitely questioned me.''
If Gordon can keep his sponsors happy, Rudd thinks he'll have a chance at surviving as an owner/driver. Rudd was the last one to do it with any amount of success, winning six times in five years as his own boss.
''The biggest obstacle he has to overcome is the perception that he can't do this,'' Rudd said. ''But if he stays ahead on the money curve and keeps the money coming in from his sponsors, then he has a good shot at making it. But keeping those sponsors happy and the cash flowing can be difficult.''
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