J. Gordon takes speedway's last flag Earnhardt runner-up as 50-year NASCAR era ends at North Wilkesboro

September 30, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. -- In a telling twist, Jeff Gordon, the driver who most represents the changing face of Winston Cup racing, won the last race scheduled at this tiny, five-eighths-mile speedway in the Carolina hills.

A standing-room crowd of more than 40,000 jammed the North Wilkesboro Speedway to witness the running of the Tyson Holly Farms 400 and the end of an era after a half-century, as NASCAR moves its major-league series to new and bigger facilities in Texas and New Hampshire next season.

"I'm tickled to win for a lot of reasons," said Gordon, after his Chevrolet beat Dale Earnhardt's to the finish line by 1.73 seconds.

"Junior Johnson, a lot of guys, started here and did so many great things here," said Gordon. "And, we're never going to see another Winston Cup race here again as far as we know. So if you didn't do it today, if you didn't get your name in the record book here today, there isn't any way to win at all the places, at all the tracks you want to in a career."

The victory is Gordon's third straight, his fourth in five races, and he hasn't finished worse than second in his last six starts.

This is also his 10th win of the season, the most since Earnhardt won 11 in 1987, and gives him a 110-point lead over his teammate Terry Labonte in the points race with just four races to go.

"We were terrible," said Labonte, who finished fifth. "The car was loose all day. We just missed it today.

"We're still in the points race, though. We've still got four races to go and we've run good at those four tracks in the past."

Gordon certainly isn't overconfident.

"No lead is big enough or comfortable enough for me right now," said Gordon, who led by 302 points after this race a year ago and wound up winning the title by just 34.

Dale Jarrett, who finished third, is 182 points back in the championship race and Earnhardt is in fourth, 351 back.

"I wanted to win this race," said Earnhardt, who concludes his North Wilkesboro career with 32 top 10 finishes in 36 races. "I punished the heck out of the tires trying to run Gordon down. But you've got to be there at the end. We weren't and he was."

But Earnhardt had no complaints yesterday, as he registered his first top 5 finish since the Firecracker 400 at Daytona last July.

"After 11 races outside the top 5, this feels real good," he said. "It turns us around."

For Gordon, it was just another fun-filled week with a happy ending. Two weeks ago, he was speaking to engineering students at Princeton University. He followed that up with wins at Dover, Del., and Martinsville, Va. Last Monday, he was chatting with David Letterman on "Late Night." Thursday, he played golf with Arnold Palmer. Yesterday, he was back in victory circle -- though victory circle here is actually a square and on top of an infield building. His car had to ride up on a freight elevator to get there.

"It's exciting -- to go on David Letterman and know he enjoys you being there; to golf with Arnold Palmer, and know he respects you for what you do," said Gordon, who won $91,350 yesterday. "It's a sign of how far this sport has come -- and like today, a sign how far we're going. It's ironic, really. You look at this small racetrack and see where we've been and the fact that we're not coming back any more is another sign of how far we've come."

This week, Gordon said his schedule is light. A week of concentrated racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he can match NASCAR's longest modern-day winning streak at four straight in Sunday's UAW-GM Quality 500.

"Just a good week of focus," he said, pointing out that his team can't afford to let up. But then he gulped. "Ah, well, there is a dinner planned for me and [wife] Brook with Monica Seles. We found out she's a race fan, so we're expecting her for dinner -- but really, that's it."

And this is it for North Wilkesboro Speedway. As the big haulers carried away the Winston Cup cars last night, everyone knew they wouldn't be back.

NOTES: Gordon now takes his place alongside Benny Parsons, Geoff Bodine and Rusty Wallace, all winners of a "last race" at former NASCAR Winston Cup facilities in the last 17 years.

Parsons won the last races at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1980 and Texas World Speedway in 1981. Bodine won the last race at Nashville Raceway in 1984 and Wallace won the closing event at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway in 1988.

Gordon led seven times for 207 laps. The race was run in 2 hours, 34 minutes and 54 seconds. There were 18 lead changes among eight drivers, and four caution flags for 29 laps.

Yesterday's results

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