DOWN TO THE WIRE
Despite trailing in the driver standings by 77 points, Dale
Jarrett isn't nearly the long shot to overtake Jeff Gordon and
win the Winston Cup championship that the deficit suggests.
Going into Sunday's season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor
Speedway, the momentum and confidence that Jarrett and his team
gained in the last few weeks have turned an apparent runaway by
Gordon into a sprint for the title.
If Gordon, 26, finishes 18th or better at Atlanta, he will
clinch his second championship in three years. "I wish it was as
easy as it sounds," says Gordon, whose 17th-place finish in the
Dura-Lube 500K at Phoenix on Nov. 2 left the door open for his
closest challengers. Even if Gordon places as low as 29th,
Jarrett still needs a top five finish to earn enough points to
win his first championship. He may do that, considering how he
overpowered the field at Phoenix, roaring back from nearly a
full lap down to win and pare his deficit by 67 points. Jarrett
says he's "not cocky, just confident" that he'll win at Atlanta
"I would equate the situation with the 1996 Masters," says
Jarrett, 40, a scratch golfer who turned down a college golf
scholarship to race. "Going into the final round, Nick Faldo was
six shots behind Greg Norman. But Faldo did come from behind. In
tournaments I played, I always found it was a lot more difficult
to protect a lead than to come from behind. We're going to
Atlanta thinking of nothing but leading laps and winning the
race. Jeff and his team are trying to make sure they don't make
Jarrett's golf analogy is an apt one when you consider Gordon's
Normanesque tendency to falter down the stretch. In '95 Gordon
led Dale Earnhardt by 302 points with four races left; he won
the championship by just 34 points. Last year he lost to Terry
Labonte's steady charge over the last six races.
Jarrett won the Primestar 500 at Atlanta in March, and though
the track has since been reconfigured to include a dogleg in the
front stretch, he also ran well there in October testing.
Jarrett plans to drive the same Thunderbird in which he won last
month's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Atlanta's sister track, Charlotte
It's mathematically possible that Mark Martin, who trails Gordon
by 87 points in the standings, could catch him and Jarrett at
Atlanta. But even if Martin were to win the race and lead the
most laps, he would need Gordon to finish lower than 23rd and
Jarrett lower than third.
"We're not the ones with the guns pointed at our heads,"
Jarrett's crew chief, Todd Parrott, says of Gordon's team.
"We're the ones pointing the guns." But don't discount Gordon's
ability to dodge bullets. After his Monte Carlo blew a tire at
Phoenix, dropping him to 30th place, he made up 13 positions
over the last 38 laps in what might have been the gutsiest
nonwinning performance of his career. Gordon salvaged 39
precious points, which could turn out to decide the driving
THE KING'S NEW PRINCE
Two of racing's household names--Petty and Andretti--are about
to join forces. Soon after the NASCAR finale at Atlanta, Richard
Petty is expected to sign John Andretti as driver of the
legendary number 43 for 1998. That should solve the biggest
headache the King has had since he retired from driving five
years ago to focus on being a team owner: his drivers' identity
"When you drive for me," says Petty, "no matter what you do,
you're always going to be in my shadow." Although Petty won't
acknowledge publicly that a deal has been struck with John
Andretti, the nephew of Mario and cousin of Michael, he concedes
that "John would have a better chance of overcoming the identity
problem than Bobby Hamilton." Hamilton has driven for Petty for
three years, but after he won the AC-Delco 400 at Rockingham,
N.C., last month, Petty still got as much publicity as he did.
"When we won our first race at Phoenix in 1996," says Hamilton,
"I didn't see a single headline with my name in it. They all
said THE KING RETURNS TO VICTORY LANE." Hamilton denies that
Petty's long shadow is the reason he's leaving to replace
Sterling Marlin on the Morgan-McClure team, but it couldn't have
helped their relationship.
Andretti, who drives for Cale Yarborough, got his first Winston
Cup victory in 110 career starts when he won the Pepsi 400 at
Daytona in July. However, Yarborough's failure to land a new
sponsor to replace RCA, which has announced it is getting out of
racing after this season, leaves Andretti free to drive for
Petty, who used him in 11 races in 1994 and liked what he saw.
Andretti, 34, would become a Pontiac teammate of Petty's son
Kyle, 37. Petty Enterprises may eventually expand to three
drivers, with the addition of Kyle's son Adam, 17, who is racing
late model stock cars. Adam would be the fourth-generation Petty
in a NASCAR dynasty that was started by his great-grandfather
Lee. But the family doesn't want to make the same mistake with
Adam that it made with Kyle, who at 19 ran a single ARCA race,
won it, then jumped to the Winston Cup in 1979. "That was a
failed experiment from the beginning," says Kyle, who needed
seven years to win his first Winston Cup race. "I couldn't bring
a 17-year-old with no experience into this series." They'll
likely have Adam serve an apprenticeship on the Busch Grand
National Series circuit first.
Yet another son of a famous driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., 23, will
take the next step in preparation for Winston Cup racing when he
becomes a full-time driver in the Busch series next season. He
takes over the Monte Carlo in which Steve Park won three races
this season. Park, a protege of Dale Sr's., moves up to Winston
Cup to drive for a new team owned by the Intimidator.
All this will spread Dale Sr., 46, a little thin next year. He
will continue to drive the notorious black number 3 Monte Carlo
for owner Richard Childress, while also advising teammate Mike
Skinner and keeping a close eye on Park and Dale Jr. What's
more, he's battling the weight of a 58-race winless streak.
Sound like a good time to retire? "I've got a contract with
Childress through 2000," Dale Sr. says. "I'm not going to quit
before then. If I sign another one, I won't quit that, either.
Racing is still fun. I'm going to win some more races and that
eighth Winston Cup championship."
Besides, he says, "I want the fans booing me like they used to."
Check out more racing news from Ed Hinton at www.cnnsi.com
The number of makes of automobile that have won Grand
National/Winston Cup races since NASCAR was founded in 1948.
More than 25 makes have started races, including Tuckers,
Willyses, Aston Martins, Porsches and Volkswagens. A Jaguar is
the only foreign-built car to have won a race.
Close finishes are the norm in NASCAR's Winston Cup series, on
the track and in the point standings. The season champion has
been decided in the last race 16 times since the scoring system
now in use was adopted in 1975. History is on the side of the
driver who holds the lead going into the finale; only twice has
a driver come from behind in that race to win the championship.
In 1992 Alan Kulwicki (right) made up a 30-point deficit when
points leader Davey Allison crashed with 74 laps to go (Allison
finished third in the standings, behind second-place Bill
Elliott). And in 1979 Richard Petty overcame Darrell Waltrip's
two-point lead to win the title--his seventh--by 11 points. Here
are the 10 closest finishes in Winston Cup history.
POINT 1ST-PLACE 2ND-PLACE YEAR
DIFFERENCE DRIVER DRIVER
10 Alan Kulwicki Bill Elliott 1992
11 Richard Petty Darrell Waltrip 1979
12 Rusty Wallace Dale Earnhardt 1989
19 Dale Earnhardt Cale Yarborough 1980
24 Bill Elliott Rusty Wallace 1988
26 Dale Earnhardt Mark Martin 1990
34 Jeff Gordon Dale Earnhardt 1995
37 Terry Labonte Jeff Gordon 1996
47 Bobby Allison Darrell Waltrip 1983
53 Darrell Waltrip Bobby Allison 1981