Jeff Gordon Raises the Bar

Gordon continues to raise the bar By Dave Rodman NEW YORK (Dec. 4, 1998) In a brief career that has been marked by one starburst after another, for three-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, 1998 stands as a career year no...

Gordon continues to raise the bar By Dave Rodman

NEW YORK (Dec. 4, 1998) In a brief career that has been marked by one starburst after another, for three-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, 1998 stands as a career year no matter how you care to analyze it.

And on Friday evening at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, Gordon will reap the benefits, both in praise and economically, of his labors.

To observers both learned and newly-introduced to the sport, the 27-year-old Gordon's achievements truly merit the somewhat ambiguous terms he's in the habit of placing on them: "Awesome" and "unbelievable."

But even when he stops to analyze them, Gordon is hard-put to quantify his achievements.

"It's so special I don't know how we'll ever compare it to anything, or how we'll ever top it," Gordon said of his latest year. "Every weekend we were a contender to win, to the point that even I was saying, 'our luck's gonna run out, our luck's gonna run out ..."

But it virtually never did. By the time he was through, in 33 races Gordon had accrued 26 top-five finishes -- a modern era record -- and 28 top-10 finishes, which tied Richard Petty's 1972 mark.

When he had arrived at the end of his season's journey, the record was truly awe-inspiring. He had won 13 races and a series record $9,306,584 -- bolstered by victories in two Winston "No Bull 5" races. In the course of his win-crazed year, he became the seventh modern-era driver to win four-straight races, and was denied only through a marvelous, inspired effort by point challenger Mark Martin at Bristol Motor Speedway in August.

The season didn't start out indicating that it would hold the promise it finally delivered.

Gordon was 16th in the season-opening Daytona 500, but he immediately rebounded to win the season's second race, the GM Goodwrench Service Plus 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. He jumped from 15th to third in the point standings, and with that -- even though he never led the standings until the Coca-Cola 600, the 11th race of the year -- Gordon's inexorable march to his third championship was on.

He had a two-race downturn, finishing 17th in the Las Vegas 400 and 19th in the PRIMESTAR 500 at Atlanta, before he bounced back with a second in the TranSouth Financial 400 at Darlington, followed by his second victory of the season, in the Food City 500 at Bristol. Even though it was early, the tenuous nature of the championship battle was clear.

"This has been a real tough season," Gordon said. "We had to win races ... because if we didn't win, Mark was winning, and so was Dale Jarrett, and Jeremy Mayfield was strong ... To have that type of pressure on you makes it real tough."

But through it all, Gordon proved he was equal to the task. He won -- for the fourth time of the year -- on the Sears Point Raceway road course in Sonoma, Calif., on June 28 in the Save Mart/Kragen 350 and never again trailed in the points, although Martin and Jarrett, particularly, continued to threaten for much of the season.

By then he was three races into his 17-straight skein of top-fives. It took just two races before Gordon won the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, kicking off his four-straight tear that included the Brickyard 400 No Bull 5 event, the Bud at The Glen at Watkins Glen International and the Pepsi 400 presented by DeVilbiss at Michigan Speedway.

After Martin stopped Gordon's streak at Bristol while salving his own broken heart, Gordon immediately bounced back to win two straight, the first of which was the Farm Aid on CMT 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway. Then, Gordon won his second No Bull 5 million at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on Labor Day weekend. As amazing as that seemed for the driver who captured the "Winston Million" $1 million bonus at the same facility the year before, the win was Gordon's fourth straight in the storied Pepsi Southern 500.

More importantly, with Martin's 40th-place finish, Gordon's lead had gone from 67 points at Bristol to 199. The championship was virtually over because no one could match Gordon's consistent, and torrid, pace. Witness his three straight second place finishes following the Southern 500, including a .051-second loss to Jeff Burton at Richmond International Raceway.

Gordon's Panzer march through the series continued, as his 17-straight top-five finish string, which had begun in the Miller Lite 400 at Michigan on June 14, continued to the rain-shortened Dura Lube/Kmart 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on Oct. 25. He came up one event short of matching another legend, David Pearson, who scored 18-straight top-fives in 1968.

Gordon's biggest failing in his last two championships had been a failure to close the season in true championship "style." But not in 1998. Gordon won for the first time in October, in the wildfire postponed Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, then followed up with victories in the ACDelco 400 at Rockingham and the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"We weren't able to close those championships in the fashion we're used to, and while we were always happy to win, we were frustrated a bit, too," Gordon said. "That had to be one of the highlights of the season, to go out winning, and to match Richard Petty at the same time."

Gordon's quest was complete and, at 27, he was the youngest to achieve three titles in NASCAR's 50-year history. In the process of winning his 13th race, which stretched more than 12 hours from its initial start into the damp Georgia night due to persistent rain showers, Gordon tied Petty's modern era mark of 13 wins in a season.

"We won Atlanta, we won the championship and we tied Richard Petty," said Gordon in exultation. "That's (tying Petty) a championship in itself, to be able to do something Richard Petty has done. I just can't explain how exciting it is to me and to the race team."

By the time the season was over, Gordon had 42 career victories and he had claimed the season-long Bud Pole Award, with seven. He also won the Daytona round of the True Value Firebird IROC Series, and became a principal in a NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division team that is owned by his wife, Brooke, and crew chief Ray Evernham that he will drive in a limited number of races next season.

Evernham, who has been with Gordon for his entire NASCAR stock car experience, also had to shake his head in admiration for his team of "Rainbow Warriors" and Gordon when it was all tallied up.

"I'm proud of a lot of things, but if you had to nail down one, it was this," Evernham said. "If you look at our performance, at the end of the year our team made a goal -- to win a race -- and stepped it up and achieved it.

"I've known Jeff for nine years, and I've never seen him as focused. Rather than lash out, we buckle down and go to work."

Race fans may have more of the same to look forward to in the short term, if Evernham and Gordon's predictions come true.

"Our goals for 1999 are to go over our weaknesses and try to improve on them," Evernham said. "You can't expect to win 13 races again, or even 10 races. We had good luck this year and you can't expect that to continue.

"But if we can be competitive and, if we get beat, we can identify why we got beat, that's what we'll need to do to keep moving ahead."

And if they do, the Rainbow Warriors may be a giant step nearer to the final check on their six-year-old list. They have long passed the checks for "contender" and "champion," the only open box is marked "dynasty." That thought even sets Gordon back a bit.

"A dynasty, well, I don't know," he said. "I think anything like that would take about 10 years to establish, and we may be long gone before that one is checked off."

But it is something the Gordon-watchers will be looking hard at. And although it's not the only thing the sport's fans have to look forward to, in the long run only time will tell how many more of Petty's records Gordon will eclipse. For now they can look forward to his third championship celebration.

"I'll enjoy this year for a long, long time," said Gordon, who in 1999 will attempt to become only the second driver in NASCAR's history to win three straight. "I've got a lot of memories I'll never forget."

Source: NASCAR Online

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Jeremy Mayfield , Richard Petty , Ray Evernham , Mark Martin , David Pearson