Jeff Gordon wanted to win the Winston Cup championship with a
bang, not a whimper. He wanted to close out the racing season
with a victory in the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on
Sunday, not with the 17th-place finish that sealed the title for
him by a mere 14 points over Dale Jarrett. But after surviving
what could have been the worst episode of choking ever seen at a
NASCAR season finale, Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports
teammates were happy to have won the championship at all--and
promised to do a better job of clinching it the next time.
Make no mistake, there will be a next time for the 26-year-old
Gordon. "He's done it before," said NAPA 500 winner Bobby
Labonte on Sunday, referring to the fact that this was Gordon's
second season title in three years. "And I'm sure he'll do it
again. His team is awesome."
Not in Atlanta. During morning practice before last Saturday's
qualifying, Gordon made what he called a "bonehead" mistake, and
at the time he seemed to be flattering himself. Heading down pit
road at just 40 mph, Gordon swerved his Chevrolet Monte Carlo
left and right to warm up his tires. He lost control of the car,
spun 180 degrees and slammed into Bobby Hamilton's parked
Pontiac Grand Prix. Gordon's Chevy was so badly damaged that he
had to use a backup that wasn't nearly as tailored to the
1.54-mile Atlanta track as the car he had wrecked. Hamilton also
had to use a backup and qualified 40th but finished seventh in
the race. "I was pretty upset with myself," Gordon said the next
day. "It wasn't a difficult thing to do because the pit road was
slippery and the tires were new."
Other members of Gordon's team must have felt their throats
constricting. While hurriedly switching their best qualifying
engine from the wrecked car to the backup, Gordon's mechanics
overfilled the oil-cooler tank. So when Gordon drove off to
qualify, excess oil sprayed from his exhaust pipes onto the
track. His rear tires slipped in the oil, causing him to swerve.
He backed off the gas to recover, and that slight hesitation was
just enough to spoil his lap time. Gordon was relegated to the
37th starting position in the 43-car field. Though he was
clocked at 190.673 mph, which was 4 mph faster than the track
record before the Atlanta Motor Speedway was reconfigured and
repaved last summer, everybody else who qualified also exceeded
the mark. Geoff Bodine qualified first at 197.478, the fastest
pole speed for a NASCAR race this season.
Gordon, who went into the race leading Jarrett by 77 points and
Mark Martin by 87, needed only to finish 18th or better in
Atlanta to win the championship. But with so little practice
time on a track that was so much faster than when they had last
run on it, most teams feared massive pileups early in the
race--and Gordon, starting so near the back of the field, was in
position to be caught up in such a mishap. Suddenly, finishing
18th didn't look so easy.
Gordon conceded on Sunday night that he'd been fibbing to the
media all week. "I said I'd been sleeping well," he said, "but I
haven't slept in two weeks." That meant he had been tossing and
turning since he failed to clinch the title at the Dura-Lube 500
in Phoenix on Nov. 2. Gordon finished 17th in that race while
Jarrett won it to pull within shooting range of the championship.
By sunset last Saturday, even Ray Evernham, Gordon's usually
unflappable crew chief, was in a bad way. "I was falling apart,"
he would say after the race. "When something is beyond your
control, you can handle it without pressure. But when your
wounds are self-inflicted, you can't blame it on luck."
Weighing worse on the team members' minds was a recent history
of folding down the stretch. In 1995 Gordon blew most of a
302-point lead over the final four races of the season but held
off Dale Earnhardt to win the title by 34 points. Last year
Gordon coughed up a 111-point lead in the last four races and
lost the crown to teammate Terry Labonte by 37 points.
At 6 a.m. on Sunday, Jarrett's crew chief, Todd Parrott, heard
something that brightened his outlook on the race. "As Ray
Evernham and I walked through the garage gates," said Parrott,
"Ray told me, 'Today, our team has to race for 15th place.'"
That was the opening Jarrett and Parrott had been hoping for. If
the points leaders were gunning only for 15th, they might easily
falter and finish worse than 18th. If Jarrett could win the race
and lead the most laps for a five-point bonus, he would be the
Playing not to lose was anathema to Gordon and Evernham, who
loathe the tactic of "stroking"--riding around conservatively to
protect a lead. But Evernham took a deep breath in his prerace
pep talk and told his team, "We've got two strikes against us,
and this is the ball game. We don't need to take any wild
swings. We just need to hit the ball."
There would be no home runs on this day. Jarrett, starting
third, felt his Thunderbird go limp almost immediately. "It just
simply wouldn't run," he said, exaggerating. In truth, it had
too little power coming off the corners. Jarrett thought a piece
of trash might have fouled the carburetor; Parrott thought the
car was understeering. Parrott was probably right because after
he made feverish adjustments the car finished second.
Martin's Thunderbird ran near the front all race and was leading
when, as Martin described it, "we lost a cylinder with about 20
laps to go." At that point Bobby Labonte ran down Martin easily,
took the lead with 11 laps to go and kept it to the end. Jarrett
slipped past Martin with two laps left, but Martin held on for
After running as high as 10th, Gordon fell back to a precarious
19th after pitting for new tires with 56 laps left--10 laps
earlier than expected. Severe tire wear affected most of the
field on Atlanta's new surface, and the final few laps were
touch-and-go for Gordon. "Even when they waved the white flag
[signaling one lap left in the race], I wasn't comfortable
because I was afraid a tire could blow at any moment," said
Gordon, who was three laps down at the finish. "Only when I came
off Turn 4 on the last lap and knew that I could get to the line
even if a tire went, did I sigh in relief."
At that moment 160,000 fans--a small part of the legions that
had booed Gordon thunderously all season because he had won too
much (10 races) for their tastes--cheered roundly. "I think," he
said, "they respect the Winston Cup champion."
Perhaps. But NASCAR fans love underdogs, even ones born
overnight. So more likely they were roaring their approval of a
guy who, for once, put himself in a humiliating jam, damn near
choked and, in the end, didn't fold.
Track off-season racing news from Ed Hinton at www.cnnsi.com
The total number of miles in the 32 Winston Cup races run this
year. Dale Jarrett was the driver who came closest to completing
all of them, racing 12,651.89 miles. Season points champion Jeff
Gordon completed 11,988.62.
The 46 drivers who started at least 10 Winston Cup races in 1997
come from 20 states and the District of Columbia; more than half
those states aren't in the South, the traditional stronghold of
stock car racing. California is tied with Kentucky as the state
most Winston Cup drivers were born in. Here are the non-Southern
states with more than one native on the NASCAR circuit and the
winningest active driver from each.
State Current Drivers Favorite Son
California 5 Jeff Gordon
Missouri 3 Rusty Wallace
New York 3 Geoff Bodine
Texas 3 Terry Labonte
Pennsylvania 2 Jimmy Spencer
Wisconsin 2 Dave Marcis