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Archive for Thursday, November 29, 2001

Focused on history

Gordon halfway to goal of rewriting record books

November 29, 2001

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The big picture.

That's NASCAR code for the championship race. It's a phrase crew chiefs and car owners use over and over to motivate their teams and keep drivers focused on the ultimate goal of a top-flight team a Winston Cup championship.

By winning a fourth career championship this season, however, the picture becomes an even bigger one for Jeff Gordon.

From now until the time he either retires as a driver or accomplishes it, Gordon's career will be about one thing catching and passing the record of seven championships now shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

"With Jeff's maturity and the chemistry of this team, I think he can win a lot of championships," car owner Rick Hendrick says. "It's going to be hard because there are a lot of guys out there who are good, but with our team's age and the chemistry it has, I would like to say we could win seven or eight championships. That's our goal."

The only active drivers with more than one championship are Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte, who has two. Gordon's fourth championship came at age 30. Petty won his fourth at 35 and Earnhardt his at 39.

"It's hard for me to look out there at other numbers," Gordon says. "Yeah, it would be cool to win eight championships, but that's not how I set my goals. Maybe I can't think that far ahead. I just try to think about how we can win the next race. How can we get to 59 victories or five championships, whatever the next one is.

"Right now I am just trying to enjoy this moment, and it's a great moment. ... Statistics are cool and neat, but they're not what you hang your hat on at the end of the day. It's not what life to me is all about. It's about being part of something special. In my mind there are just bigger things that make you happy in life than numbers."

Gordon's moment for 2001 comes Friday night in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the place where last season he and Hendrick sat at the table reserved for the sport's ninth-place team and yelled all evening to be heard over a nearby speaker.

The format for the ceremony has changed this year it will be a theater-style setting instead of a sit-down banquet but the champion and his team will still be front and center as the focus of the festivities.

It's a role Gordon grew accustomed to in winning titles in 1995, '97 and '98, and one he admittedly began to miss as he finished sixth and ninth over the last two seasons.

"In 1995 we really didn't know what we were doing racing for a championship, but our team just really gelled that year," Gordon says. "In '96 Terry Labonte beat us out there, so obviously Hendrick Motorsports had some things really figured out. In '97, we were mad because we didn't win it in '96. ... Then '98, whew, we couldn't do anything wrong it seemed like. It seemed like everything went our way."

That's a quick way to summarize a four-year period in which the team won three titles and 40 races and completed the journey from upstarts to dynasty that crew chief Ray Evernham had laid out for them when the team first formed. When that remarkable '98 season ended with Gordon matching Petty's modern-era record with 13 victories, it looked as though the train would just keep on rolling.

Then Evernham left before the end of the next season to spearhead Dodge's return to Winston Cup racing, and the train ran off the tracks.

"I know there were doubters out there who were saying this team had been pulled apart and that it would never be able to get back in championship form," Gordon says. "Those kind of things motivate me and this team to go out there and prove the critics wrong."

By the standards set by the No. 24 Chevrolet team, proving that was an uphill battle. Gordon won just three races last year and, for the first time since 1995, didn't lead the Winston Cup circuit in that category. But he and crew chief Robbie Loomis, who joined before the 2000 season began to help with the rebuilding process, laid the foundation upon which this year's return to prominence was built.

"I have seen him change so much in the two years I've been around him," Loomis says of Gordon. "He has developed as a leader and as a driver who knows the car, who wants to be part of making decisions about the car to a point of helping make calls on pit stops. That has been very enjoyable for me. The Jeff Gordon I came to work with is very different from the one I work with now."

Gordon has grown into the new role forced on him by the departure of Evernham, considered by many to be Gordon's Svengali.

Still, there are those who would devalue Gordon's role in his first nine seasons at Hendrick Motorsports.

"Jeff is a great driver, but he stepped right into one of the top rides when he came in," Sterling Marlin said after the race at Atlanta in which Gordon clinched this year's title. "He had Ray Evernham with him. When you surround yourself with good people (and) you get good equipment, you can go."

You'll get no arguments about that from Gordon.

"I will be the first to tell you that Dale Earnhardt is the greatest driver I ever raced against, but I will be right behind that saying he had great teams," Gordon says. "If people think my success is because of the great team and the people behind me, that's what they should think.

"It does come down to the team and the preparation and the engines and the cars and all of that stuff. ...

"If they say I have a great team and a great situation, yep, I sure do."

Since there are so many new elements since 1999, Gordon knows that in some ways his team faces the first-time championship pitfalls that helped keep him from winning a second title in 1996 and that kept Labonte and 1999 title-winner Dale Jarrett from repeating as well.

"When you go through this for the first time it's extremely overwhelming," Gordon says. "There's so much that comes along with being the champion, the expectations for the driver and the team.

"You've worked hard for it. You go through that year and you say, 'I've spilled my guts for this year, and it has finally come and I've accomplished it.' It's hard to do that year in and year out. It takes a toll."

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