What, Gordon worry? Champ wins 1st race Victory at Richmond ends slow start

March 04, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- When you're the defending Winston Cup champion and you're going into the third race of the new season in 43rd place in the points standings, you're worried.

Yesterday, Jeff Gordon was worried.

"Our goal for this season was to work on our consistency," said Gordon. "We had finished the first two races 40th and 43rd. We were real consistent, but it wasn't exactly what we were looking for, and we knew if we didn't do something soon, we'd be too far back to do anything."

Gordon and his Rainbow Warrior crew found exactly what they needed in the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

An afterthought early in the race, as he sat back and watched the leaders wear out their tires and chassis, Gordon was dominant at the finish, pulling away from Dale Jarrett on a final four-lap sprint to victory.

"We needed this," Gordon said. "I don't know if it's a comeback. We won't know that until next week -- or the end of the season. But no matter what, a win can do so much. I don't think I've been this excited since winning the Brickyard 400 two years ago."

And to prove it, he jumped up and down in victory lane as if he were an uninhibited 5-year-old.

The victory, in front of a wind-chilled crowd of 88,000, is Gordon's first since winning the championship (his first) last season. It is also his first win in nine races, dating to last September at Dover Downs International Speedway.

Yesterday, he beat Jarrett by .56 of a second while averaging 102.750 mph in his Rick Hendrick-owned Chevrolet.

Gordon and Jarrett were followed to the finish line, in order, by the Jack Roush team of Ted Musgrave, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin.

Jarrett now has a Daytona 500 victory and two second-place finishes and leads Jeff Burton by 86 points in the Winston Cup standings. Dale Earnhardt, who had come in tied for the points lead, suffered brake problems and slipped to fourth with a 31st-place finish.

Gordon moved up to 27th.

"This is a young team, and, through no fault of its own, things had not gone well," said Hendrick, recalling Gordon's crash at Daytona and an engine failure last week. "We needed to keep our perspective, and I spent a full 2 1/2 hours talking to them one night just about that. I told them it was just a stretch of miserable luck and that it was no time to panic."

Yesterday, there was no panic by the crew, which turned in terrific pit stops to get its driver into the lead, and there were no troubles for The Kid, who collected $92,400 and avoided a penalty, along with Burton and Martin, when their cars were found to be an eighth-inch under NASCAR height requirements in post-race inspection.

After extensive examination, NASCAR ruled there would be no penalties imposed "due to wind, cold and track conditions."

It wasn't such a good day for some others. Bill Elliott's plan to break a winless streak that dates to September 1994 at Darlington, S.C., ended with a caution flag on Lap 350.

Before the yellow, Elliott had positioned himself to be the only driver who could make it to the finish without another pit stop.

Bobby Hamilton, who led 129 laps, found his car would not handle over long green-flag periods and fell back. That put him in position to prevent John Andretti from claiming his first top 10 finish of the season.

Hamilton, trying to pass Andretti for sixth, bumped him hard enough to bounce him back to 12th. Andretti responded by hitting Hamilton twice on the cool-down lap.

"It was just racing," said Hamilton, who was himself bumped out of contention last week by Earnhardt, who went on to win.

1. (2) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, $92,400, 102.750 mph. 2. (11) Dal Jarrett, Ford, $44,225, 400. 3. (15) Ted Musgrave, Ford, $42,200, 400. 4. (21) Jeff Burton, Ford, $22,350. 5. (5) Mark Martin, Ford, $37,850, 400. 6. (3) Bobby Hamilton, Pontiac, $37,900, 400. 7. (14) Rusty Wallace, Ford, $28,375, 400. 8. (1) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, $34,475, 400. 9. (34) Ricky Rudd, Ford, $27,875, 400. 10. (6) Bill Elliott, Ford, $27,225, 400.

11. (16) Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet, $28,575, 400. 12. (38) John Andretti, Ford, $25,675, 400. 13. (28) Ward Burton, Pontiac, $26,725, 400. 14. (13) Ken Schrader, Chevrolet, $22,925, 399. 15. (10) Kenny Wallace, Ford, $12,635, 399. 16. (23) Robert Pressley, Chevrolet, $22,570, 399. 17. (4) Ricky Craven, Chevrolet, $21,870, 399. 18. (39) Lake Speed, Ford, $21,720, 399. 19. (18) Rick Mast, Pontiac, $21,495, 399. 20. (36) Kyle Petty, Pontiac, $23,170, 399.

21. (7) Steve Grissom, Chevrolet, $22,210, 399. 22. (27) Derrike Cope, Ford, $21,085, 398. 23. (37) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, $26,515, 398. 24. (25) Mike Wallace, Ford, $13,980, 397. 25. (24) Brett Bodine, Ford, $20,940, 397. 26. (40) Bobby Hillin, Ford, $13,615, 397. 27. (12) Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet, $20,490, 396. 28. (29) Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, $13,365, 395. 29. (30) Jimmy Spencer, Ford, $20,340, 394. 30. (20) Elton Sawyer, Ford, $10,310, 394.

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