Inside Motor Sports

July 14, 2002

Here He Comes
Despite a winless first half, Jeff Gordon's drive for Winston Cup
number five is very much alive

Jeff Gordon can't catch a break. He hasn't won a race in 25
starts, his longest winless streak since the beginning of his
Winston Cup career, when he went 41 events before taking his
first checkered flag. His divorce from his wife of seven years
has been publicly acrimonious and sometimes bizarre. (His
soon-to-be ex, Brooke, wants more money because, she claims, she
dressed him well, which made him more appealing to sponsors.) In
last Saturday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona, which was won by Michael
Waltrip, tough luck visited Gordon again, this time in the form
of a flat left-rear tire that put him a lap down. His ensuing
22nd-place finish dropped him from third to fifth in the points
race.

Gordon's performance on Saturday neatly summed up the first half
of his season. "We've had cars capable of winning, but we've had
crazy things happen," he says. To wit: Three weeks ago at Sonoma,
where he had been victorious three times in four years, he again
looked like the class of the field until he lost a gear, fell
behind by seven laps and limped across the start-finish in 37th.
At Martinsville in April, Gordon was second when he got a flat
trying to avoid a wreck; later he lost his power steering and
came home in 23rd place with a tired pair of arms.

Take all these misfortunes together, and what do they augur? That
Gordon is going to win his fifth Winston Cup championship, of
course. In what is shaping up as the tightest points race in a
decade--10th-place Kurt Busch is just 295 points out of the
lead--the winless wonder is still the most likely driver to catch
leader Sterling Marlin, whom he trails by 150 points.

Last year Gordon was in another tight race before he exploded in
late July, going from a first-place tie with Dale Jarrett to a
208-point lead in just five events. "There's something about this
stretch of the season where Jeff and that whole team are able to
flip on the switch," says rookie Jimmie Johnson, who's third in
the standings. "We're getting into the stretch where he starts
dominating."

As for the oft-espoused theory that Gordon's personal life is
harming his driving, consider that in the past, when faced with
difficult situations, Gordon seems to have focused even more.
"There's no doubt something like that affects you," he says of
his divorce. "How could it not? But I've had a lot of things that
have been distractions throughout the years, and I've won races
and won championships."

Last summer, for example, as he was putting together the deal
that placed Johnson in a Gordon-owned car, the Kid was making a
mockery of the points race, which he wrapped up with two events
left. The addition of Johnson hasn't been a distraction this
season, either; the 26-year-old rookie has become so good so fast
that the 30-year-old Gordon has occasionally turned to him as a
resource. "My ego's not too big that I'm afraid to borrow from
him," says Gordon. "I'm not ashamed to say I've learned from
Jimmie."

Gordon gives Johnson advice on handling the pressures of driving,
while Johnson has helped Gordon through his divorce. "We're able
to hang out and just chill," says Johnson. Now all Gordon needs
to do is get off the schneid. Even if he doesn't win in July,
he's a virtual lock to win at one of the first two venues in
August, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen. Gordon is the only
three-time winner of the Brickyard 400, and he's won four of his
last five starts at the Glen.

Whenever that first win comes, Gordon warns, it will open the
floodgates. "I'm looking at this season this way: The first half
really hasn't gone that well, but I'm not that far out of the
lead," he says. "Imagine what'll happen if we get some things
going our way. I know how this team is. If we get a win, watch
out."

One-Race Sponsorships
Mike Wallace, Meet Carrot Top

For most of last weekend, Mike Wallace and his team had the look
of a contestant on Blind Date. They were being set up with a
stranger, and they knew that much of TV Land would be tuning in
to see if a long-term relationship was in the cards.

Actually, they were partaking of something far more
nerve-wracking: a one-race deal. For sponsors unwilling to shell
out $15 million for a full season, putting up a few hundred
thousand dollars for one race is an attractive alternative. Two
sponsors fielded cars at last Saturday's Pepsi 400 in single-race
deals. One was Dakota Imaging, which backed eventual 40th-place
finisher Shawna Robinson. The other was 1-800-CALLATT, which sent
the owner of Wallace's car, Andy Petree, a check. The company
also sent its pitchman, Carrot Top, who sat atop Wallace's war
wagon while serving as his honorary crew chief.

For sponsors, a one-off offers a huge potential upshot. Lycos put
itself on Johnny Benson's hood the night before the 2000 Daytona
500 and was rewarded with an estimated $1.1 million worth of
television time when Benson nearly won the race.

The benefits for the racing team are less tangible. "The one-race
deal doesn't really help us a lot, other than to get the car out
there and get some visibility," said Petree before last
Saturday's race. In other words, in addition to having to handle
countless details, such as coming up with a paint scheme for the
car and having uniforms made with the sponsor's logo, everyone on
the team knows that if he screws up, he might scuttle chances for
a long-term deal. That can produce some serious pressure to
perform in the face of long odds. (How often do Blind Date
contestants walk down the aisle together?)

Wanting to make the most of its chance, Wallace's team was the
first in the garage on Saturday. Mr. Top, whose visage graced the
hood of the car, proved to be only slightly less popular a track
attraction than free cigarettes. (At one point three Florida
Highway Patrol troopers escorted him as he walked through the
garage.) Carol Eversen, an AT&T general manager, spent two days
with the team and liked what she saw. "I'm hooked," she said on
Saturday afternoon before sounding a note of caution. "I'm not
sure what we'll do. I'm thinking about [a further commitment],
but it's not in the plans. So far the program has exceeded my
expectations."

The impressive show continued when the race began. Wallace worked
his way into the top 10. But on the 18th lap Steve Park wrecked
him, and he finished 41st. It wasn't the greatest way to end the
evening, but Petree did receive some good news. AT&T said it was
leaning toward coming back for October's Talladega race, so it
appears there will be a second date after all.

COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS O'MEARA/AP Gordon's marital woes and bad luck on the track haven't given him much to smile about, but just wait. COLOR PHOTO: TERRY RENNA/AP (LEFT) Wallace spun out at Daytona, but his night wasn't a total wreck, as 33 may have a ride for Talladega. COLOR PHOTO: RICK HAVNER/AP [See caption above]

You Saw It Here First
We already told you to pencil in Gordon for the 2002 title; here
are a few other things to watch for in the second half

--Silly season will be longer and sillier than ever. Young drivers
are a white-hot commodity, and a few older hands are thinking of
hanging it up, so we're in for quite a game of musical rides. One
near certainty: Elliott Sadler will go from Wood Brothers to
Robert Yates Racing. Slightly less certain: Will he replace Ricky
Rudd, who has hinted at retirement if he can't work out a deal
with Yates?

--Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win at Talladega in October. Dale
Earnhardt Inc.'s cars are becoming one-trick ponies. They
dominate restrictor-plate tracks and are so-so elsewhere. With
Michael Waltrip's victory last Saturday, DEI drivers have won
five of the last seven events at Daytona and Talladega. (Of
Waltrip's and Junior's eight career Winston Cup wins, five have
come at those two tracks.) Guys, do us a favor: Spend less time
on your restrictor-plate program. You might run better elsewhere,
and superspeedway races wouldn't be so predictable.

--We'll see a race that fails to field 43 cars. It nearly happened
at Pocono last month, but two ARCA drivers, Frank Kimmel and Carl
Long, rounded out the field at the last minute. A late-season
race at a track without a supporting ARCA event--say,
Phoenix--might produce the first short field since 1996.

--A big-name open-wheel racer will find work in NASCAR. Sam
Hornish, Max Papis and Paul Tracy have all made noise recently
about giving stock cars a shot. If one of them agrees to a
deal--which probably wouldn't take effect until 2003--it would
further underscore NASCAR's superiority in the racing world.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)