RIVALS HAVE NOTHING BUT PRAISE FOR 'AIR GORDON' INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 1, 1998 -- Just call him "Jillion Dollar Jeff." Jeff Gordon is a race driver for the 1990s, a Michael Jordan on four wheels. NASCAR staged its big 50th anniversary summer ...
RIVALS HAVE NOTHING BUT PRAISE FOR 'AIR GORDON'
INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 1, 1998 -- Just call him "Jillion Dollar Jeff."
Jeff Gordon is a race driver for the 1990s, a Michael Jordan on four wheels.
NASCAR staged its big 50th anniversary summer Midwest bash Saturday, the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There was a $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus added to the payoff for five key drivers, including Gordon, if any one of them won.
Don't wave a $1 million bill in front of Gordon. He'll eat it up. And that's what he did when 160 heart-stopping laps were finished. His total purse for becoming the first two-time winner -- he also won the inaugural race in 1994 -- was an all-time auto racing record $1,637,625.
That surpasses the $1,568,150 Arie Luyendyk collected for winning the 1997 Indianapolis 500.
It also was the second time in less than a year that Gordon won a race that had a $1 million bonus attached to it. He took the checkered flag last Labor Day weekend at Darlington, S.C., and that victory had the "Winston Million" as part of the payoff. His career earnings now are $20,297,547, second all-time only to Earnhardt in NASCAR Winston Cup.
And Gordon, who cut his racing teeth on the short tracks around central Indiana, has stuffed his wallet with this money in just 4½ seasons. He won't be 27 until Aug. 4.
Gordon took the checkered flag leading the pack under yellow. If that seems unfair, one must realize runner-up Mark Martin, third-place Bobby Labonte and fifth-place Dale Earnhardt, all also eligible for the $1 million bonus, could not take first place away when the track was green. And Dale Jarrett, the other eligible No Bull 5 driver, ran out of fuel on the track at the halfway point. It took everything he had to just get back into the lead lap and finish 16th.
"This one just blows me away," said Gordon, a former resident of Pittsboro, Ind.
Crew chief Ray Evernham, who has orchestrated Gordon's NASCAR races since his beginnings in the NASCAR Busch Series, stated flatly that Gordon is the greatest driver he's ever worked with. That says something, considering that Evernham worked with most of the sport's stars when he was involved with the International Race of Champions series.
"Like the Chicago Bulls have got Michael (Jordan), we've got him," Evernham said of NASCAR Winston Cup points leader Gordon.
Evernham, also team manager for Hendrick Motorsports and Gordon's DuPont Chevrolet, was asked whether he might be considered the Phil Jackson of auto racing. Jackson has guided the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships.
"Yeah, maybe I am the coach," Evernham said.
"I don't compare myself to Phil Jackson, but motivation and team coaching is a big part of it. I can take Jeff over my knee, and I don't think Jackson can do that with Michael."
The final 10 laps were extremely intense. On Lap 150 a crash brought out the yellow. Green came on Lap 154 as Evernham sat atop his scoring stand with his head bent, twiddling with a pen. In the next pit, car owner Jack Roush, wearing his recognizable straw hat, held the same position. He clung to a clipboard.
Everyone stood in the grandstands.
Then Jimmy Spencer crashed and brought out the caution again. Martin chomped at the bit to get another run at Gordon on the next restart. The green waved on Lap 158, but another crash occurred. Martin charged right up on Gordon's bumper, but Gordon refused to look in the mirror. When he finally did, Martin had slipped back. The was over with Gordon leading when they caught the yellow at the line.
Martin's crew threw their arms down in disgust. Evernham leaned down from his perch and gave low fives to his team.
Gordon took the checkered flag, and the crew celebrated in the pits. Roush, whose Valvoline Ford driven by Martin beat 41 other drivers but not Gordon, climbed down and began the long walk to his garage.
"It's pretty frustrating," Roush said. "We didn't have a great pit stop there at the last. Mark had a run at him. He said the car pushed when he got a chance to get under him, but we were not in a position to go take it. We weren't just quite as good."
Robert Deering, who works in the chassis shop for Hendrick Motorsports, stayed in the Gordon pit to guard the equipment while the rest of the team charged down to the elevated platform in Victory Circle.
"He's a hell of driver," Deering said of Gordon. "I'm just one cog in a big wheel here."
In the next pit, Doug Newell began packing up equipment after accepting that his driver Martin couldn't quite overtake Gordon. He wasn't totally downhearted over a second place finish.
"It was really tough," he said. "Anytime you lose, it's tough, but you at least like to have a chance to race for it.
"We race with those guys all the time, so they're fun to be with. They're good, they're really good. It just makes us try that much harder when we race against them."
Further down the pit, Chocolate Myers, the noted crewman for Earnhardt and his GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet, strode toward Gasoline Alley. His driver wasn't strong enough to "intimidate" Gordon. But Earnhardt led six laps, and he and teammate Mike Skinner finished fourth and fifth, respectively, the best team showing since Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in February.
"Gordon! I'll tell you, I get to speak a lot publicly, and I tell everybody right up front they need to meet Jeff Gordon," Myers said, "because he's just a super, super nice guy. He's doing what he gets paid to do, and he's doing a great job at it. You know, a lot of people don't like Jeff, but Jeff's a winner and he's awesome. He's really a role model for a lot of people."
Back in the garages, former football coaching legend Joe Gibbs, owner of Labonte's third place car, stood quietly and watched as mechanics took a final look under the hood of his Interstate Batteries Pontiac.
"We were just a little bit off; not much, but we were a little bit," he said first about Labonte's close finish. "We finished second last year, third this year. Maybe at some point we're going to stay up and win this. It sure would be a thrill to be down there in Victory Circle."
Like the others, he had nothing but good words for the Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors.
"To me, he's a heck of a young guy," Gibbs said. "He's very talented, obviously. I think Ray Evernham is a big part of it, and Rick Hendrick is very much a part of this. I think it's an all-round team. At this level of sports you can't have a weak link."
When Gordon arrived in the media interview room, he summed up the entire day with one word.