THE KING AND I
A third title in hand, Jeff Gordon is on pace to break Richard
This is an article from the Nov. 16, 1998 issue
No driver in NASCAR--or in any other form of motor racing--has
been so successful at as young an age as 27-year-old Jeff
Gordon. His victory in Sunday's rain-shortened, season-ending
NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was his 13th of the year,
tying a modern-era record Richard Petty set in 1975, at age 38.
With 42 career wins, Gordon is the youngest driver by one year
to surpass 40 victories and the youngest by seven years to win a
third season championship. So, how far can Gordon go in the
record books? The possibilities are astounding.
Gordon, who wrapped up the 1998 Winston Cup championship on Nov.
1, has been on a tear since winning seven races and his first
Winston Cup title in '95. He won 10 races in '96 and again in
'97, and 13 this season, including three of the last four, to
become the first driver in the modern era (since '72) to have 10
or more victories three years in a row.
If he can maintain his pace of the last four years--10 wins per
season--Gordon could break Petty's record of 200 career Winston
Cup victories, a mark long considered not only unbeatable but
also unapproachable, at the age of 43. By 47, the age at which
Petty got his 200th victory, Gordon could have 242.
Would he race 20 more years? "If I have years like I've had this
year, I'll race as long as I possibly can," he said after
Sunday's race, which ended under the lights, nearly 10 hours
after it began. "I don't put an age or a number on it. It has to
do with being competitive and being in good enough shape."
After Petty got his 200th win, in 1984, conventional wisdom held
that mathematics alone would carve the King's record in stone:
140 of Petty's wins came before 1972, when the NASCAR schedule
commonly consisted of 50 to 60 races a year. Many of those were
relatively short contests and were held on backwater tracks, and
they featured scant competition for the well-financed and
well-equipped Petty. In the modern era, with only 30-plus races
a year, it seemed certain that there wouldn't be enough events
or a team dominant enough to win 200.
Barring serious injury or burnout, Gordon could do it and could
also shatter the career record of seven NASCAR season
championships shared by Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty was 42
when he won his last title, and Earnhardt was 43.
1998 in Review
AWARDS AND UNTOWARDS
With the conclusion of the major motor racing seasons, here are
SI's awards for achievement, both exemplary and dubious.
Lead Foot Cup
CART driver Paul Tracy, who blew his chance for the $1 million
first-place money in the Nov. 1 Marlboro 500 by spinning off
California Speedway while leading under caution with three laps
left. No other car touched Tracy's. He won $12,500 for finishing
Mr. Gullibility Cup
Winston Cup team owner Jack Roush, who fell for the charge by an
anonymous letter writer that Roush's main competitor--whom Roush
presumed to be the Gordon team--was using an illegal and
undetectable tire-softening substance that enabled their car to
grip the track better. Independent lab analysis showed Gordon's
tires met regulations, and tire engineers said no undetectable
softening product exists.
Elmer Gantry Prize
Winston Cup team owners who publicly decry the folly of
restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega while privately
refusing to spend R and D money on alternative methods for
holding down speeds at the two giant tracks.
Elvis Presley Charisma Award
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who burst onto the NASCAR scene by winning
seven Busch Series races and attracted such a following that
sales of his licensed merchandise began to rival that of the
king of cash-and-carry at the souvenir trailers--his father.
Crew Chief of the Year
Hendrick Motorsports' Ray Evernham, for supervising the
meticulous preparation of Gordon's cars, for making terrific
decisions on pit stops in the heat of battle and for keeping the
sometimes temperamental Gordon calm during races.
Best Driver Who Didn't Win a Driving Championship
Mark Martin, for winning eight Winston Cup races, finishing
second to Gordon a heartbreaking four times and pressing on
while grieving over his father's death in a plane crash in August.
Driver of the Year
Mika Hakkinen, who won the F/1 title in the best tradition of
Rudyard Kipling--he trusted himself when all other men doubted
him. Despite wide speculation that he would lose his points lead
down the stretch to two-time F/1 champ Michael Schumacher,
Hakkinen brilliantly held off Schumacher to win the Luxembourg
Grand Prix on Sept. 27 and gain a four-point cushion in the
drivers' standings heading into the season finale in Suzuka,
Japan, five weeks later. Hakkinen also won that race to emerge
triumphant on a circuit on which the pressure is far greater
than either Winston Cup champ Gordon or CART titlist Alex
Zanardi faced in winning their respective crowns.