Hendrick keeps pace in drive for crown Winston Cup finale has car owner edgy

November 09, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

HAMPTON, Ga. -- A Winston Cup car owner is well-served if he gets to run for a title once in his lifetime. Thus, Rick Hendrick, the man who owns the cars of points leader Terry Labonte and defending champion Jeff Gordon, should be doubly delighted that his teams are battling each other and Dale Jarrett for the Winston Cup Championship.

"I think it's the ultimate," said Hendrick. "But it's just really hard. You want to see both of them do well, and it's hard to be excited. Mentally, it's like having two sons and each of them playing for opposing teams in the championship game. Only one can be MVP and you know the one who isn't is going to be really disappointed."

And so, tomorrow, when teammates are battling for the Winston Cup crown for the first time in the sport's history in the last race of the season, the NAPA 500, Hendrick will do what he has done this entire season. He will pace.

"It's a hell of a deal on Sundays," said Hendrick. "I go to a neutral pit. Sometimes people look up and see me standing in their pit and wonder what I'm doing. I'm just standing in the corner trying to stay out of the way. I shift back and forth. I get a lot of exercise on Sundays."

Gordon, the defending champion, has shown that last season's title run was no fluke with 10 victories this season. Labonte, who has shown consistency to be an equally potent force, has parlayed two victories and 20 other top-five finishes into the top spot going into tomorrow's race.

Labonte leads the title chase by 47 points over Gordon. Jarrett is in third, 99 points back, and has an outside chance,

"Winning this title would mean a lot," said Labonte, who already owns the 1984 championship. "I'm human. I'm like everybody else. Everybody wants to win the championship. And there's a pretty big difference between first and second. I guess Jeff was about 12 years old when I won the first one."

Gordon, who was actually 13 and completely oblivious to Winston Cup racing in 1984, has found running against Labonte inspiring.

"I remember the Christmas party last year, when his team congratulated us," said Gordon. "They said, 'You guys won it this year, we're going to win it next.' They've been wanting it bad, and when they perform great, that makes us want to go out and perform even better."

The Hendrick teams showed the seriousness of their pursuits yesterday during qualifying. It took a track-record run of 185.887 mph by Labonte's younger brother Bobby, in the Joe Gibbs Chevrolet, to prevent the two of them from starting side-by-side on the front row tomorrow.

Gordon (185.290) will start on the outside of the front row and Terry Labonte (184.559) will start on the inside of row two.

Jarrett, who ran 184.131 mph, will start fifth.

"I knew Terry and Jeff were really quick and having had dinner with Terry Friday night, I knew he was going for the pole," said Bobby. "I'm surprised I got it. At least we kept it in the family."

Terry Labonte is the odds-on favorite to win. He has been the most consistent driver throughout the season. Both Gordon and Jarrett admit the title is his to win or lose.

"The championship is not going to happen for me if Terry doesn't have problems," said Gordon. "If he doesn't have problems, I don't expect Terry to finish worse than eighth. He's been too good all year."

"It's not like our fate is in our hands," said Jarrett. "It's going to be a matter of what happens to Terry and Jeff. We can win the race and lead all the laps in the world, but if they finish the race, we are more than likely not going to win the championship. All we can do -- what we've got to do -- is just go race these guys hard."

For decades, car owners and drivers believed two- and three-car teams couldn't work, that the competitive nature of the business worked against it, that infighting would undermine whatever good could be gained from two teams working together.

It took Hendrick 10 years to win his first championship. Now, in the 11th season, he has the chemistry right on two of his three teams. Still, tomorrow the car owner will be more nervous than his drivers.

Gordon seems more mature than ever and Labonte is the Ironman of Winston Cup. Not even a broken hand two weeks ago could prevent him from driving, and he goes into tomorrow's race having started 536 straight races.

Yesterday, after qualifying, Labonte admitted the hand "hurt a little bit more than I thought it was going to."

Enough to make a major difference tomorrow? Probably not.

"My hand isn't as good as I thought it was, but we're working on the [steering] wheel a little bit and I've just got to get my hand better," he said. "We can do some stuff to it to kill the pain if we need to."

For the Labonte and Gordon teams, the biggest concern is owner Hendrick.

"I feel really kind of sorry for him," said Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham. "He's not getting the enjoyment out of this that he should. He's afraid to enjoy anything because he doesn't want to act like he's showing favoritism."

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