Publish date:

Inside Motor Sports

Birthday Presence
Never trust anyone over 30 with your car at the Brickyard--unless
it's Jeff Gordon

On a road leading to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there's a
Chevy billboard with Jeff Gordon's picture and the words, YOUNG
GUY WITH 750-HP CARS. HOW COOL IS THAT? Ever since 1992, when he
burst onto the Winston Cup scene, Gordon has cultivated a
youthful image. On Saturday, however, he entered new territory:
He turned 30.

The change didn't immediately agree with Gordon. His car was
awful in practice for the Brickyard 400, and his Saturday
qualifying run left him 27th on the grid. Race day offered more
of the same. His car handled poorly in traffic, and the tinkering
of Gordon and his crew chief, Robbie Loomis, did no good. "All we
need to do is get up front," he told Loomis.

Gordon got the break he needed when a caution flag interrupted
green-flag pit stops and shuffled him near the front of the pack
with more than half the 160-lap race remaining. Sure enough, in
the cleaner air his car handled brilliantly, and Gordon became
the first driver to win three Brickyards.

While Gordon was running away with the race in the final 15 laps,
Dale Jarrett was dropping from seventh to 12th, allowing Gordon
to stretch his Winston Cup lead over him to 160 points. Ricky
Rudd, who came into the race in second place, finished 39th and
fell to third in the standings thanks to a broken fan belt.

A fourth Winston Cup championship, which would put Gordon more
than halfway to the record of seven, shared by Dale Earnhardt
and Richard Petty, is beginning to look inevitable. Petty's
record of 200 victories (many of which were picked up when the
NASCAR schedule included nearly twice as many races as it does
today) is out of reach, but Gordon is more than halfway to David
Pearson's total of 105, which is second to the King's. Gordon
doesn't look too far ahead; he's still trying to enjoy the
present--and his presents, which included a Ferrari arcade game.
"I try to live in the moment and enjoy as much of my life as I
can," he says. "I'm just trying to get through age 30. [On
Saturday] people thought 30 was wearing on me, but hopefully
[it] means I'm coming into my prime."

Dodge's Winless Streak
Sink the Intrepid?

On a Saturday afternoon in February, Stacy Compton was standing
on the 3rd hole at LPGA International in Daytona Beach when he
sensed an opportunity. A few hours earlier he had qualified third
for the Daytona 500, and now his crew chief, Chad Knaus, was
calling Compton's cell phone to assure him that all was well.
Compton, however, told his playing partner, Mark Melling, a
different story.

As the owner of the number 92 car, Melling is Compton's boss. As
a co-owner of Treetop Golf Resort in Gaylord, Mich., he has
developed into a golfer with a single-digit handicap. Compton, on
the other hand, is about a 15, and since they were playing for
money, he wanted to rattle Melling. So Compton told him that the
postqualifying inspection had revealed a violation that would
require the crew to cut off the roof of his Dodge Intrepid. The
ploy worked "for three holes or so," says Compton, whose gambit
limited his losses to $15.

Those were the days when the nascent Dodge program had so few
problems that it could afford to invent them. By the time
qualifying for the 500 was over, all 10 Dodge cars had made the
field, and Intrepids started one-two-three. It should have come
as no surprise that the cars qualified so well. When Dodge
decided, in late 1999, to return to Winston Cup in 2001, the
focus of the program was the qualifying for the 500. "We couldn't
come to Daytona and send half the Dodge field home," says
Compton. "We had to be competitive. We may have neglected other

Bill Elliott's fifth-place finish was the best by a Dodge at
Daytona. In the 20 races since, the 10 Dodges, at week's end, had
only 25 top 10 finishes. The closest an Intrepid has come to
winning was John Andretti's second-place finish at Bristol, which
Sterling Marlin matched on Sunday. "The performance is not what I
would have expected," says Ray Evernham, who gave up his job as
Jeff Gordon's crew chief to oversee Dodge's return. Going from
micromanaging the building of race cars to handling a multitude
of administrative details has been a difficult adjustment. "Being
hands-on with one car and 25 people is a lot different from
trying to run two race teams, build an engine shop and oversee
120 people," Evernham says.

While there has been plenty of trial and error, it is not fair to
look at Dodge's winless streak and conclude that the fault lies
with the Intrepid. The Dodge drivers combined for only one win
last year, but of the five drivers who are with the same team
they drove for last year, three have improved their performance.
"We're trying to figure out a race car and an engine at the same
time," says Andretti. "It's been a real stub-your-toe kind of

Up-and-coming Ryan Newman
Driver's Ed

As heartwarming as it was to see Toronto Raptors star Vince
Carter get his diploma from North Carolina in May, does anyone
really think that his knowledge of African-American studies--his
major--is going to advance his career? Had he received a degree in
Knocking Down the J, that would have been a different story.

It would have been like the story of Ryan Newman, a gifted driver
who was awarded a degree in vehicular structure engineering from
Purdue last week. Passing up much of the college partying
experience to race on weekends, Newman finished school in
slightly more than four years. A 23-year-old South Bend native,
Newman had made a name for himself maneuvering open-wheel cars in
his home state since he was a child. In 1995 he was rookie of the
year on the midget circuit. In February 2000 he talked his way
into a meeting with Roger Penske, owner of a three-car NASCAR
team. Penske offered Newman the chance to enter a few ARCA races
last summer, and when Newman won three in a row, Penske devised a
2001 schedule in which Newman would run a mix of ARCA, Busch and
Winston Cup races with an eye toward a full Cup ride in 2002.

ARCA cars are similar to Winston Cup cars. So similar, in fact,
that the car in which Newman set the Lowe's Motor Speedway track
record last October for the fastest lap in a stock car is the
same one he has used in his four Cup races this year. ARCA races,
however, tend to be shorter and the competition not as strong as
in Busch and Winston Cup races, so Newman and Penske dropped the
ARCA circuit to run more Busch races. "The Charlotte [ARCA] race
last year was 100 laps [150 miles], and we did one pit stop under
caution," Newman says. "We can run a 300-mile Busch race and do
two or three pit stops. I get more experience handling the car,
and the guys get more experience doing pit stops."

Newman guided his car, nicknamed Patience, to the fifth spot in
qualifying at Brickyard 400, but he finished 31st after being
bumped. He won the pole at Charlotte in May but finished last
after an accident on the 12th lap, then finished fifth at
Michigan in June. Such lofty results for a young driver
sometimes leave him itching to get on with his full-time Cup
career. When he feels that way, however, he relies, as he does
on the track, on patience.

COLOR PHOTO: MIKE DELANEY/AP Gordon's well-timed pit stop helped him win for the third time at Indy.

COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SQUIRE/ALLSPORT Despite a slow start, the Dodge team doesn't think the Intrepids (left) are the source of its woes.

pit Stops

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is looking into becoming a part
owner of a Winston Cup team. Reports have linked him with owner
Richard Childress, but it's more likely that Jones will invest
in a team that is seeking a sponsor for 2002, such as the number
33 Chevy owned by Andy Petree, who has spoken with Jones about a
deal.... The final race of the 2002 Winston Cup season is
expected to be moved from Atlanta to Homestead, Fla. Cold
weather in the fall has plagued Atlanta, so the track's race
will be moved up three weeks, to Oct. 27. Getting the finale is
not necessarily a boon; the last three titles have been wrapped
up in the season's penultimate race.... Less than a week after
the Feb. 18 crash that killed Dale Earnhardt, a NASCAR doctor,
Steve Bohannon, claimed that Earnhardt's lap belt broke, causing
his head to hit the steering wheel. Soon after, Bill Simpson,
the founder of Simpson Performance Products, the company that
manufactured the belt, began receiving death threats. Last week
the heat finally got to Simpson, who resigned from the company
he started in 1959. Bohannon has backed off his claim that the
belt failure caused Earnhardt's death, and NASCAR is expected to
release the results of its investigation later this month.