Uneasy Gordon, crew to keep pedal to metal Winston lead slim with four races left

October 12, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Jeff Gordon and his Rainbow Warrior crew have a 125-point lead in the Winston Cup competition with four races to go, but crew chief Ray Evernham isn't at all sure that's enough.

"Worry?" said Evernham. "I worry constantly. That's why they call me the Rainbow Worrier. That's worrier, not warrior. That warrior stuff is a mispronunciation."

Evernham is laughing, now, but that's not to say he isn't serious.

Gordon's lead going into today's race at Talladega (Ala.) Motor Speedway is, indeed, tenuous. It could be gone in a heartbeat, in the time it takes to have a major part break or a crash engulf him.

If Mark Martin, the man who is in second place, or Dale Jarrett, the third-place challenger who is 197 points back, wins and Gordon breaks down or crashes and winds up not running at the finish, those 125 points could disappear with the wave of the checkered flag.

And yet, all Gordon has to do to clinch his Winston Cup title is finish fifth or better in each of the remaining races.

The odds seem to be on his side when you consider that Gordon is already the first Winston Cup driver to win over $4 million in purse money in a season; that he has a personal season-tying high 10 wins for the second year in a row, and 21 top-10 finishes in 28 starts.

His top-of-the-line consistency has been demonstrated in his last 11 races, in which he has nine top-five finishes that include three of those 10 victories.

Already, Gordon is one of just 11 drivers to win the Winston Cup in the sport's modern era. If he wins another, he would become one of just 13 to win more than one title since the sport's inception in 1949.

"We want to win races," said Gordon. "But just keeping up with Mark [Martin] and Dale [Jarrett] is a major goal right now. It was really a big deal last Sunday to lose only 10 points to Mark. We finished right behind him in fifth -- and we didn't lose a whole lot to Dale, either, and he won the race."

Winning like Jarrett did at Charlotte last Sunday, or like Martin did three weeks ago in Dover, Del., won't do much good if Gordon keeps running strong. And Gordon, if you look at his winning percentage so far this season, is due in victory lane again anytime. Martin's and Jarrett's teams feel as though they're collecting nickels and dimes.

"It's not looking good for us to catch them," said Steve Hmiel, Martin's crew chief the last six years and his team manager this season. "That team is so good. They never have any trouble and the only way for us to catch them is for them to have trouble. I'm not wishing that on them. I think they're a classic deal."

But Evernham is quick to point out that the No. 24 car has had its share of bad times this season -- a 42nd place at Talladega in the spring comes to mind -- though Gordon has failed to finish a race just twice all year.

"Every year about this time you hear people complain about the points system in our sport," said Hmiel, explaining his reason for calling Gordon's team a classic. "People complain that the guy who wins the most races doesn't win the championship. Well, maybe it's this year that the champion wins a lot of races and wins the championship, too. Those guys are awfully, awfully good."

Even so, Evernham isn't taking anything for granted. He said he is keeping his team focused on one race at a time. He said he's talked to Gordon about the long-range plan for winning the title, but says the team can't afford to look ahead.

"The hardest part is keeping everyone physically and mentally ,, rested," Evernham said. "There's just not enough time to give people the time off they really need. But we can't worry about the stuff we can't control. All we can do is work hard, focus on the race at hand and do the very best job we can. If we do all that, no one can beat us. But if one little instance of trouble surfaces, it's a completely different story."

Evernham pauses. A lot of work has gone into forging the 125-point lead. The most amazing thing about it is that even with all the work and the brilliant results, the lead is only 125 points.

"It isn't much," said Evernham. "We could go into Atlanta with a 125-point lead and still lose the title. Heck, by the time we get to the next race at Rockingham, Mark Martin could be leading by 125."

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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