Like Old Times
Jeff Gordon made a daring pass at Talladega to snap his winless
Heading into the DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on
Sunday, Jeff Gordon hadn't won a race in six months. It was
difficult to tell who was more troubled by that: Gordon; his new
crew chief, Robbie Loomis; his fans; or the countless NASCAR
aficionados for whom rooting against him is a passion. Sure,
there were a few anti-Gordon banners at Talladega, but they were
nowhere near as prevalent--nor as mean-spirited--as they were in
the glory days, when every week the smart money was on the number
24 car. Between February 1995 and October '99, Gordon won 47
races, or 30% of his starts. "Everybody likes a winner, but
nobody likes someone who wins too much," says Gordon. "When I
first heard the boos, I said, 'I don't blame 'em.'"
Lately, though, rooting against Gordon has been like rooting
against the Chicago Cubs. In the first seven races of this season
he finished no better than eighth, and three times he wound up
25th or worse. His only top five showing was two weeks ago at
Martinsville Speedway, where he finished fourth. "Hell no, it
ain't the same," said one disappointed Gordon baiter at Talladega
last Saturday. However, 24 hours later everyone was happy after
Gordon showed that he's not washed up at 28, by winning with a
dazzling late pass.
The victory got King Kong-sized monkeys off the backs of Gordon
and Loomis. The beginning of Gordon's decline had coincided with
the departure last September of brilliant crew chief Ray
Evernham, who left Gordon's garage to spearhead Dodge's fledgling
NASCAR program. After the 1999 season Evernham's interim
replacement, Brian Whitesell, was bumped up to team manager, and
Gordon and owner Rick Hendrick searched for someone to fill
Evernham's shoes. "People don't realize how hard it was to find
somebody," says Gordon. "We wanted Brian to be a chief aspect of
this team and bring in another person to work with him. A lot of
guys were afraid of that. They were like, 'It's too much
pressure.' Robbie wanted it."
Gordon and Loomis, who had worked for Richard Petty as crew
chief of John Andretti's car, knew each other mostly by
reputation. ("Anybody the King respects, I respect," says
Gordon.) Even though they hit it off when they met, it took a
while for the two to learn to read each other. "I knew with Jeff
and Ray that there wasn't any magic or anything," Loomis says.
"It was a case of them communicating well and Ray's being able
to get inside Jeff's head. The hardest things about the
driver-crew chief relationship are those that aren't said. When
he says the car's loose, I've got to figure out how loose."
While Gordon and Loomis got used to each other, the team
struggled on the track. Skeptics had a field day, crowing that
the sole reason the number 24 car had ever won was Evernham. But
on Sunday it was just like old times. Gordon took the lead for
the fifth time on Lap 159 of 188, only to commit the cardinal sin
of restrictor-plate racing three laps later. Mark Martin passed
him, and instead of falling back in line, Gordon let his Chevy
get caught outside the draft. A train of cars swept past him, and
with 18 laps left he had fallen to ninth. But he worked his way
back up to third, and when Jeremy Mayfield tried to pass Martin
on the high side with six laps to go, Gordon ducked beneath both
of them. He then held off a hard-charging Mike Skinner for his
50th career win.
That was good news for Gordon lovers and haters alike.
Tracy Surges At Long Beach
Gordon, who started 36th at Talladega, wasn't the only driver to
come from the back of the field and win last weekend. Paul Tracy
won CART's Grand Prix of Long Beach from the 17th spot. The
victory bodes well for Tracy: Only once in the last six years
has the Long Beach winner failed to also take the points
championship.... Because he got caught in a 17-car wreck at
Talladega, Michael Waltrip completed only 148 laps. No problem.
That enabled him to catch an earlier flight to Boston, where on
Monday he competed in his first marathon. "I'm not sure where
I'm starting," he said on Sunday. "My tag number is 17,398, so
that can't be real close to the front. If you think starting
36th in a [Winston Cup] race is bad, try starting 17,398th."
Waltrip met his modest expectations--"I hope I finish around
16,000th or so," he had said--when he crossed the finish line
14,315th, in 4:42:20.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Gordon (24) took the low road to become the ninth Winston Cup winner in as many races this year.