Harassed Gordon leans on peer support by Shawn A. Akers HARRISBURG, N.C. (Sept. 8, 1998) While he still hears the boos that pour weekly from NASCAR Winston Cup Series stadiums, Jeff Gordon is slowly beginning to win over more and more race...
Harassed Gordon leans on peer support by Shawn A. Akers
HARRISBURG, N.C. (Sept. 8, 1998) While he still hears the boos that pour weekly from NASCAR Winston Cup Series stadiums, Jeff Gordon is slowly beginning to win over more and more race fans each week.
More than that, however, he's leaving his competitors shaking their heads, wondering just what they have to do to catch up to Gordon, crew chief Ray Evernham and their runaway team of Rainbow Warriors. Gordon continues to amaze, astound and even confound his peers, setting records and making history along the way in a dream season that has him sitting in the driver's seat to win his second straight NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship and third overall in four years.
Sunday, the 27-year-old driver of the No. 24 DuPont Refinishes Chevrolet won the Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. In the process, he:
Won his second straight race and won for the sixth time in the last seven events;
Won his fourth consecutive Pepsi Southern 500, the only driver in history to accomplish that feat;
Won his 10th race of the season, becoming the only driver in the modern era of NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing to earn at least 10 victories in a season for three consecutive years;
Earned the 39th NASCAR Winston Cup Series victory of his career in only 180 starts;
Won the Winston "No Bull Fiv5" $1 million bonus for the second time this season, pushing his winnings this year over $6 million; and
Won $1 million from Winston and R.J. Reynolds for the third time in a year (he won the discontinued "Winston Million" bonus for winning the Southern 500 last year).
The numbers, indeed are mind-boggling, but then again, so are Gordon's performances this season.
"That son of a gun has got it together, ain't he," seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt said of Gordon following Sunday's race. "Him and his team are awful good. They're doing the job. He'd better ride that horse while it's running, though. That thing might break a leg."
"I just can't understand why Gordon's team is so damn good," said Rusty Wallace, who won 10 races back in 1993 but finished second to Earnhardt for the championship. "That's good, and they're good. You've gotta be envious of them and happy for them."
Felix Sabates, owner of the Nos. 40, 42 and 46 Chevrolets, already has Gordon, Evernham and their band of Rainbow Warriors immortalized.
"I think Jeff Gordon is the best driver of all-time," Sabates said. "I think they've got the best crew of all-time. If they had been driving a Ford this year, they might be undefeated. I think he's the best driver who's ever driven a stock car. I'm in a Chevrolet, and I know we're at a disadvantage, but we can't complain about it because Gordon's in a Chevrolet and he's kicking everybody's butt."
So why has Gordon and his team been so dominant over the past two months? It's a question asked not only by the fans around the country, but also by the ever-increasing numbers of media who cover the sport on a weekly basis.
Jeff Burton, who dominated Sunday's race but wound up finishing second, offers his explanation.
"It's difficult for race car drivers to run behind the 24 car, but the 24 never gets out of shape," said Burton, a one-time winner this season who is seventh in the standings. "The car doesn't do anything wrong. I'm not putting Jeff Gordon down as a driver, but whatever it is they're doing, the key is that the car is going through the corner without a hitch and down the straightaways as well, even when he steps it up and goes faster. You watch Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett, when they step it up, something happens with their car. Not with the 24 car, and that's why they're so tough."
Rival team owner Jack Roush, who recently has become involved in a controversy questioning whether or not Gordon and his team are abiding by NASCAR rules, conceded his teams need to do something to step up a notch if they're to beat Gordon consistently.
"I'm going to meet with my guys this week, and we're going to see what we have to do to take this thing to the next level," Roush said. "They (Gordon and crew) deserve the recognition and acclaim they're getting, as long as they're doing everything everybody else does. That's where my heart is. I believe anyone racing that hard deserves to get what they're entitled to. When it's going well for you, you should have a chance to enjoy it."
And that's something Gordon, Evernham and the Rainbow Warriors are certainly doing this season. Following the Pepsi Southern 500, their lead in the standings has been boosted to 199 points over Martin with nine races left in the season.
"When we get on the plane to go back home after the races, Brooke and I just look at each other and just have to smile," Gordon said. "We can't believe just how much God has been blessing us. It's just awesome. I don't know what else to say."
Martin isn't conceding anything just yet, but realizes he's beginning to run out of time in the quest for his first title.
"It's just a little war we lost, but the battle is still there," Martin said after Sunday's race, in which he finished 40th after dropping a cylinder late in the 500-mile event. "No matter when it happens (engine problems), it costs you the same amount of points, so it ain't over."
Source: NASCAR Online