Fixin' to Roll
Its confidence restored, Jeff Gordon's crew is aiming the 24
juggernaut at the points title
As Jeff Gordon emerged from his car in Victory Lane on Sunday at
Darlington Raceway, he surveyed his raucous crew and proclaimed,
"These guys have come alive." Gordon's second straight win, on
the heels of a 31-race winless streak, couldn't have come at a
better time. There are three factors in the racing equation: the
driver, the car and luck. No one on Gordon's team thought he had
forgotten which pedal was the accelerator and which the brake,
and you can write off only so many eighth-place finishes to bad
luck. That left the car--and crew--as the culprits. "You start
questioning yourself," says Jay Wiles, Gordon's engine tuner. "If
you've got Jeff Gordon driving your car and you're not getting it
done, you know it's not his fault."
The one person who kept the 24 team from getting too far down on
itself was Gordon, who exudes a calm that can be contagious. That
composure, says crew chief Robbie Loomis, is what he cites when
rival drivers ask what separates Gordon from them. "He's the one
who kept us calm," says Loomis. "He's got confidence that runs
way deep, and I and a lot of guys on the team don't have that."
That Gordon is in the hunt for his fifth Winston Cup title--he's
91 points behind leader Sterling Marlin after winning his fifth
Southern 500--is a testament to his scrappiness. Gordon has
fared poorly this year at tracks that were once points mines.
For instance, he won six of eight road-course races from 1998 to
2001, yet this year he was 37th at Sonoma and 22nd at Watkins
Glen. By contrast, when he broke his winless streak two weeks
ago, he did so in one of the few events he hadn't won, the
Bristol night race.
The points race might come down to the season's final day, which
hasn't happened since 1997. Betting against Gordon in that
scenario is a bad idea. "He's always the man to beat," says Bill
Elliott. "Jeff's coming up on a good stretch, and that team is
really strong. If they don't have bad luck, they'll be hard to
Japanese Driver In Winston Cup?
In 1996, when NASCAR ran the first of three exhibition races in
Japan, owner Travis Carter was looking for someone to drive his
Camel-sponsored car. He picked the perfect guy: Hideo Fukuyama is
as popular in Japan as Richard Petty is in the U.S., and he
bears, by his own admission, a striking resemblance to Joe Camel.
Against a field full of Winston Cup regulars, such as Jeff Gordon
and Rusty Wallace, Fukuyama ran in the top 10 until he wrecked
Fukuyama made a lasting impression on Carter. Sources have told
SI that the owner will put Fukuyama, 47, behind the wheel of a
Winston Cup car at Dover on Sept. 22 and in two subsequent
races, likely at Martinsville and Rockingham. A sports car
driver who won his class at the last two 24 Hours of Le Mans
races, Fukuyama tested the Dover oval--dubbed the Monster
Mile--on Aug. 27. "I want to forget about it," says a laughing
Fukuyama. Still, the three-race deal could turn into a full-time
ride next year.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES Gordon's cool kept the wheels from coming off his team.
COLOR PHOTO: SEKINE/SUTTON Fukuyama
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS STANFORD/GETTY IMAGES
Famine to Feast
Should Jeff Gordon win the points race, his season-opening
23-race winless streak would be the longest by far by an
eventual champion. Here are the longest roads to Victory Lane by
a Cup titlist.
DRIVER YEAR WINLESS STREAK
Terry Labonte 1984 12
Dale Jarrett 1999 10
Darrell Waltrip 1985 10
Terry Labonte 1996 6