NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon back in Chase -- with Levittown native Eddie D’Hondt as his spotter

Eddie D'Hondt hangs out in the Nationwide garage

Eddie D'Hondt hangs out in the Nationwide garage at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (July 12, 2013) Photo Credit: Josh Stewart

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LOUDON, N.H. - “You’ve got 2 on the 2.”

It’s lap 85 of July 14’s Camping World RV Sales 301, and Jeff Gordon needs to know that his pass of Brad Keselowski will stick so he can focus on pursuing third-place Kyle Busch.

Eddie D’Hondt lets him know that, yes, he’s pulled ahead of Keselowski’s No. 2 by two car lengths.

The radio communique is “good pertinent information, not jibberish,” as D’Hondt explained earlier, a requirement for anyone who spots for Gordon. D’Hondt, a 1977 Levittown Division High School graduate, is in his second season spotting for the four-time Sprint Cup champion, spending every weekend on top of NASCAR track press boxes as Gordon’s eye in the sky.

Chemistry is the key, and much like pitchers and catchers, sometimes it just doesn’t jibe. Ask Jorge Posada, a future Hall of Famer who was dispatched from his spot behind the plate for the likes of Jose Molina and John Flaherty -- thanks to A.J. Burnett and Randy Johnson, respectively.

Potential style conflicts make it all the more impressive that D’Hondt, 54, spots for three different drivers with varying experience in the three national series: Gordon in Sprint Cup, Justin Allgaier in the Nationwide Series and Miguel Paludo in the Camping World Truck Series.

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Being able to direct such diverse drivers -- he’s in his second year with all three -- has helped D’Hondt negotiate his own NASCAR path, which thanks to the sport’s fickle ways has featured more twists and turns in recent years than the road course at Watkins Glen. (And that was before all the shenanigans that led to Gordon being out, then back in, the Chase for the Championship for Sunday’s opener at Chicagoland.)

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“Here comes Mr. Magoo!”

Gordon, a future first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer, employs “Dragnet” Sgt. Joe Friday’s “Just the facts” philosophy when working with D’Hondt. But D’Hondt and Allgaier’s relationship is much more teacher-student. Part of that involves the spotter providing some levity to Allgaier, who admits, “I can get too analytical and focused, and actually slow myself down.”

Still, D’Hondt is twice as old as the 27-year-old Allgaier, a point he was reminded of earlier this year at Kentucky. Allgaier was on the track approaching a driver in a slower car. D’Hondt didn’t trust Allgaier getting too “race-y” with that particular on-track counterpart, prompting the reference to the visually challenged cartoon character.

“I don’t think he knew who Mr. Magoo was,” D’Hondt said as he and Allgaier laughed about the moment during a chat in Allgaier’s hauler at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Maybe his dad knew, but he didn’t.”

Generally, though, that extra generation’s worth of experience has been beneficial. D’Hondt headed down to North Carolina in 1996 to pursue his NASCAR dreams after years as a driver and mechanic in the northeast modified racing scene, including action at Riverhead Raceway. The rag-tag bunch that came with him included North Bellport’s Tommy Baldwin, now a Sprint Cup team owner, and New Jersey’s Kevin “Bono” Manion, currently the crew chief for Jamie McMurray.

“We called it Camp Chaos -- there was about eight of us in that house,” D’Hondt remembered of that time, which included cutting his teeth in roles with various teams. “I slept on the couch for a year-and-a-half. That’s what we had to do.”

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“Whaddyu just say?”

D’Hondt is asked about potential communication problems with Paludo’s Brazilian accent, and he just laughs.

“When I first started down here I worked with Bill Elliott,” D’Hondt remembered of his spotting duties. “You want to talk about a difference in talking?”

Elliott’s legendary heavy Georgia drawl aside -- including some “Whaddya just say?” back-and-forths on the radio -- the pair bonded to the point that they headed together from Elliott’s self-owned team to former Gordon crew chief Ray Evernham’s start-up team in 2001 that brought Dodge back to NASCAR. D’Hondt served as the team’s general manager and spotted for Elliott. The ensuing years brought both highs and lows, from making the inaugural Chase for the Championship in 2004 with Elliott Sadler as GM of Robert Yates Racing, to being released from the team just two years later amidst a rash of departures for a team in turmoil.

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For the next few years he tried his hand as an owner in the Nationwide Series -- something he had done before partnering with fellow LIer Baldwin. But he was trying to re-establish himself at the worst possible time.

“It’s been quite a winding road. The economy took a downturn for awhile there and everyone had to regroup,” D’Hondt said in talking about the trouble finding sponsorship. “So I got out of the car ownership part and just started spotting in all three series.”

He had continued as a spotter the whole time he was in other roles, so he was ready when Kyle Busch was in need of a spotter midway through the 2010 season. The pair ended up finding Victory Lane 41 times together in different series before Gordon acquired his services to start the 2012 season. And in that switch lies the nuances that make some of these partnerships flourish and others flop.

“Kyle was a little different in that he didn’t want to know nothing about anything going on behind him until it was on his bumper,” D’Hondt explained. “With Jeff, he prefers a little deeper picture.”

While standing on pit road at Loudon, Gordon concurred, saying that sometimes the last car D’Hondt needs to be focusing on is his.

“A good spotter like Eddie, they know how to recognize whether you’re faster than everybody else and not faster than everybody else and if you’re not, maybe where you’re losing time,” Gordon said. “So a lot of times I’ll come on and say, ‘Fill me in on if you’re seeing something where guys are really making up time.’ So, there’s times where you want them to be watching what you’re doing, and then you want them to kind of see what’s going on at other parts of the track so you can try to make your car go faster.”

“They’re all over the board,” D’Hondt added of his drivers. “A guy like Miguel Paludo who is just launching his career and is just learning, I have the ability to be an encyclopedia for him, because I’ve been to these tracks many, many times and he hasn’t.”

During a recent phone interview Paludo, 30, told the story of him not understanding during a race at Charlotte why D’Hondt couldn’t clear him to pass another car. The following week Paludo was on the spotter’s stand at Charlotte with D’Hondt during Coca-Cola 600 weekend. D’Hondt showed Paludo what he could see from a spotter’s perspective and why he couldn’t always clear Paludo as quickly as the driver wanted.

By the time they were done, Paludo understood perfectly.

“One thing Eddie’s really good at is being able to help me with kind of what’s going on around me,” Allgaier said, noting that he listens to D’Hondt spot for his other drivers to understand the differences. “And that’s something this year that I feel like I’ve been able to take what he said and put it more into play… [In the] past he said it, and I’d be like, ‘I can’t do that.’ Some of it’s me, some of it’s the car, some of it’s aerodynamics, whatever, but it’s been cool this year to see the transition of where he says it, I can go try it, and normally I can do it. And when I can’t, we have to work on it.”

For all the trust they’ve developed working together -- and Allgaier’s willingness to learn -- there still has to be some natural chemistry.

“I will say with a spotter I can say within the first 25 laps spotting with him whether it’s going to work or whether it’s not,” said Allgaier, who is making his Sprint Cup debut at Chicagoland Sunday. “And when I started with Eddie I knew within the first five we were going to be fine. We’ve tailored things a little bit, but it’s like buying a pair of pants that’s one inch too long and having them hemmed, you know? It’s not going out buying a triple-X T-shirt for someone who wears a small.”

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“Next car behind you is Bowyer”

D’Hondt said he’d eventually like to go back to managing a team, then immediately qualifies that wish.

“I’ve got a couple of things that people are working on, but it’s all talk,” D’Hondt said. “I’m pretty content with what I’m doing right now. If someone came along and gave me a chance to do that again with 90-hour weeks it’s going to have to be something I’m really interested in.”

Until then, he’ll spend most weeks leaving his Sherrills Ford, N.C., home, putting two dogs in a kennel he dubs a “resort for dogs” -- and leave for wherever the next race is, often with girlfriend Cindy Shepherd. She’s a NASCAR account representative for Impact by MasterCraft Safety, a maker of driving suits and other safety equipment.

Just don’t confuse D’Hondt’s contentment with complacency. All the talk about driver/spotter chatter in the last week brings to mind last year’s second-to-last race at Phoenix, when D’Hondt helped Gordon find Bowyer on the track, leading to a wreck that morphed into a postrace donnybrook between the two teams in the garage.

“That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” D’Hondt said of Bowyer making contact with Gordon earlier in the race, along with some incidents earlier in the year. “ And we’re all a part of that team. So I was just as interested in him [Gordon] getting him as he was. Sometimes you’ve got to settle the score, and he did.”

Last week Bowyer’s spin and its disputed intentions at Richmond comprised a turn of events that left Gordon out of the Chase. Friday, NASCAR made Gordon the Chase’s unprecedented 13th entrant.

Regardless of what role he plays in racing moving forward, D’Hondt seems to understand that he’s not going to find this kind of rollercoaster in any other line of work.

“Uh, I don’t know what else I would do,” D’Hondt confessed of his lifer status. “And I’m not the only one. We’re all in the same boat here. That’s why we’re all still here.”

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