As smoke clears, it's Gordon's day 17th-place finish wins second championship

November 17, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Jeff Gordon had already spun on pit road once during this NAPA 500-race weekend, and that little turn of wheel had cost him a race car. So when he came around the fourth turn on the cooldown lap after clinching his second Winston Cup championship yesterday, his mind was working fast.

NASCAR officials had told him to follow the pace car down pit road to the post-race celebration. And he thought that was probably all right. Except, of course, that he wanted to show the 152,000 fans in the Atlanta Motor Speedway stands just how happy he was about winning this title, a title that boosted him onto a par with just 12 other Winston Cup drivers who have won more than one championship.

His original plan was to do a 360 spin out, like he'd done when he won in 1995. But there was that spin on pit road on Saturday that resulted in a wreck and was still gnawing at him. So, for the first time that he could remember, he ignored NASCAR.

When the pace car dipped onto pit road, Gordon roared on down the front straight. He parked at the start-finish line, where he had just finished 17th, three laps behind race-winner Bobby Labonte and the two men who were challenging him for this title. Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin finished second and third, respectively, in both the race and points chase.

Once parked, Gordon leaped onto the roof of his Chevrolet and began a joyous dance, arms pumping over his head, fists clinched, feet beating out a victory rhythm in an old-fashioned demonstration of happiness.

"Winning this title is the sweetest thing ever," said Gordon, 26. "And I wanted to share my excitement with the fans. I think the champion should share his excitement with the fans, and it was very satisfying. They were so pumped up and, really, it was great to get up on that roof and hear all those people cheering for me, really cheering. Usually, the boos outweigh the cheers in my case. But our fans have a lot of respect for our series champion.

"And, besides, I was afraid if I went down pit road and tried that spin on those tires, I might have blown a tire."

It was Gordon's second championship in three years and the third straight for car owner Rick Hendrick, who watched at his home in Charlotte, where he continues to fight leukemia and await sentencing on his guilty plea to a federal charge of mail fraud.

Gordon had already had a superlative 1997 season, winning the Daytona 500 and nine other races and the Winston Million bonus. All he needed to top it off was this championship.

But it was so close, that on a day when Labonte became the first driver to win back-to-back NAPA 500s in 26 years, Gordon, Jarrett and Martin combined to produce the closest three-way run for the title in the sport's history.

Gordon won by 14 points over Jarrett and by 29 over Martin. Only the 1992 points race came close to matching this one, when Alan Kulwicki won by 10 points over Bill Elliott and 63 over third-place finisher Davey Allison.

"We had a shot at it," said Martin, who was leading the race until his Ford dropped a cylinder with 11 laps to go and Labonte passed him. "I wanted to win this race real bad, because each race is a championship. But we gave it all we had. And even if we won the race, we wouldn't have won the championship. Jeff Gordon and his team earned it and they deserve it."

Jarrett, who drove his Ford past Martin with just two laps to go to clinch second place, was also philosophical.

"We did all we could do and that's all you can ask," said Jarrett, who joined Gordon and Martin at a private prayer meeting Saturday night. "They did their job and we were just a little bit short."

But like 1995, when Gordon won his first title, he tried very hard to give it away. Two years ago, he frittered away a 205-point lead over Dale Earnhardt and wound up winning by a mere 34.

This time, he came in leading by 77 points over Jarrett and by 87 over Martin. Within a half-hour of the opening of practice Saturday, he had crashed his primary car by being "a bonehead" and overdoing it while warming up his car's tires on a slick pit road.

Then his team, trying to make up for his mistake by putting a stronger engine in the backup car, started a chain reaction by overfilling the oil tank. During Gordon's qualifying run, the oil overflowed onto the track and under his rear wheels while going through the first turn and resulted in his 37th starting spot in yesterday's race.

"I can't stand winning championships like this," said an exhausted Ray Evernham, Gordon's crew chief.

Any thoughts Gordon and his team had of winning the race went out of the window with the Saturday crash and qualifying mishap. And as yesterday's race wound down, no one in the Gordon camp was absolutely sure they'd win the championship, either.

By the time there were just 50 laps left, it was apparent that Gordon's car was experiencing greater tire wear than those of other competitors.

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