Gordon misses battles, friendship with Earnhardt. INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, July 31, 2002 -- It's been 18 months since Dale Earnhardt drove his final lap, and Jeff Gordon says there's definitely a difference in NASCAR Winston Cup today without ...
Gordon misses battles, friendship with Earnhardt.
INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, July 31, 2002 -- It's been 18 months since Dale Earnhardt drove his final lap, and Jeff Gordon says there's definitely a difference in NASCAR Winston Cup today without him.
Gordon and Earnhardt, two of stock car racing's all-time greats, won the first two Brickyard 400s at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in 1994 and 1995, respectively. They wore the white hat and the black hat of the sport, and the fans split their allegiance between the two from the time the handsome, clean-cut youngster from Indiana came into NASCAR and challenged the crafty, hard-driving veteran.
Gordon returns to the Brickyard this weekend as the defending champion seeking a fourth victory in just nine races. Some veteran drivers -- 40-somethings Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin are the top two in the point standings -- are still around, but Gordon said it's just isn't the same without the black No. 3 Chevrolet out there to battle down to the wire, as well as Earnhardt's dominating personality in the garages. Earnhardt died in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
"It's funny, because I don't think anybody can get away with what Dale could get away with at the racetrack," Gordon said. "I mean, the guy could slam into you, you'd get mad for a second, then you'd laugh about it because it was Dale.
"He brought a lot to the sport. I learned a tremendous amount from him and would just still be learning from him. I think there's a lot more to be learned."
Gordon noted that the sport has moved on and continued to grow without the giant Man in Black. An influx of young, fast, aggressive drivers will be at this year's Brickyard 400 trying to snap the stranglehold the veterans have had on victory at the world's most famous racetrack since Gordon won the inaugural race in just his second full season in Winston Cup.
"But I don't know if we'll ever forget about him and what he did for the sport," Gordon said.
Gordon, the former USAC ace from Pittsboro, Ind., said many fans switched their allegiance to Earnhardt's charismatic son Dale Earnhardt Jr., but the rivalry Gordon had with Dale Jr.'s father has not evolved to any length with Junior.
"I think the one thing maybe missing right now that was there when Dale was racing was the rivalry we had not only with our fans but on the racetrack," Gordon said. "The fans loved it.
"They like it when me and Junior race together. The problem is, we haven't had many battles together on the racetrack, so the fans haven't had as much to get excited about. A little bit of that goes on with (Tony) Stewart, too.
"But, for some reason, it seemed like anytime the black 3 and the rainbow-colored 24 car got together, it was 'stand up in your seat, let's see what's going to happen.' Good Guy vs. so-called Bad Guy. I'm not saying he was the Bad Guy. I'm not saying I'm a Good Guy, either.
"I do miss some of that. We had fun with it."
Gordon said he and Dale Earnhardt would laugh about it in garage get-togethers, because both knew the only rivalry between them was that both were fierce competitors. He said when they had equal cars they battled each other like crazy.
"Anytime we had cars that could run side by side," Gordon said, "not only did we do it to race hard, but sometimes we did it just to put on a show, had fun with it and laughed about it later."
Gordon has struggled this season through 20 races without a victory. Still, he has shown enough consistency to cling to fourth in the standings and, with 16 races yet remaining on the schedule, he could make up his 188-point differential behind leader Marlin and add a fifth title to his illustrious resume.
"We create our own expectations," he said. "When we got to the halfway point of the season and hadn't won a race, a lot of people were looking at that as 'Hey, what's going on here?'
"I think if we had been running in the back of the pack all year long and we were 15th or 20th in points, then I certainly would be very disappointed. But knowing we're 188 points out of the lead, fourth in points and have had cars capable of winning, it makes it a little easier to swallow.
"That doesn't mean we don't want to win. We want to win really bad. And I think we will before the season's out."
A fourth win in the Brickyard, and particular at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, would be particularly special to Gordon.
Gordon was 5, still living in his native California and driving go-karts when A.J. Foyt won his fourth Indianapolis 500 title in 1977. Gordon was 15 and just starting to drive USAC midgets in Indiana when Al Unser added his fourth in 1987. Rick Mears picked up his fourth Indy win in 1991, three years before Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400.
Gordon earned his third Brickyard 400 victory last year one day after his 30th birthday. This year, the race falls on his 31st birthday.
"I remember when A.J. was the only guy with four," Gordon said. "And then Unser came along and won four, and Rick won four. Those guys were my heroes.
"I remember going to the Speedway for the first time and going through the Museum and looking up on that (Borg-Warner) trophy and who had won the races. When you looked at the guys who had won a lot of races here, those were the guys you pulled for and became your heroes.
"I hope one day a kid comes through there and looks at my name up there on that trophy and it says four. But if it just says three I'll be happy with that, too."
Every win is unique and special, Gordon said, but he doesn't think a fourth victory would top the feeling he had after taking the checkered flag in the first Brickyard 400.
"It's not just because it was the first one, but because it was the inaugural event," he said. "Everybody was so excited to have stock cars in Indianapolis and something different.
"And for all of us stock cars guys who maybe just watched the Indy 500 on TV or somebody like myself who went to it as a kid, just to get that opportunity to drive around the track and compete was awesome. It was the first time for anything but Indy cars to be out there. I remember just the buzz in the garage, and everybody wanted that first one. They knew this was history, something that would never come along again.
"It's going to hard to top that whether we win four or six or how many races."