Bumpy spots slow, don't stop Gordon Glitches overcome, he sails at Pocono

July 27, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. -- Jeff Gordon likes it best when his car sails through corners in an uncontested arch of triumph. But Sundays the Winston Cup circuit are seldom like that.

Even yesterday, in the Pennsylvania 500, when driving the strongest car in the field, Gordon found himself in several scraps as, first, overconfidence nipped at him, and then that old troublemaker, Dale Earnhardt, showed that with a good car he can be just as intimidating as ever.

"That's what makes it entertaining," Gordon said after his Chevrolet beat Mark Martin to the finish line by 1.53 seconds to record his fifth victory of the season and stretch his series points lead to 62 over Martin's Ford. "Those incidents kept it from being a walk."

They were the only things.

As Martin pulled his car into the garage at Pocono International Raceway, he couldn't help but admire Gordon's run.

"I got in front of Jeff Gordon once and I was just totally in his way," Martin said. "I couldn't get out of the way fast enough."

Gordon, whose pit crew took him from fifth to first on the final pit stop on Lap 145 when crew chief Ray Evernham decided to go against the odds and only put two fresh tires on the car, was simply much better than everyone else.

And Gordon was right. Without his bold move and the re-emergence of Earnhardt, this 500-mile race over the 2.5 mile tri-oval would have been a bore for the crowd, estimated at near 120,000.

After having led all but six of the first 100 laps of the 200-lap race, Gordon felt his car could do anything -- anytime he wanted -- and tested that theory.

On Lap 125, while running third and trying to make up ground on Earnhardt and pole-sitter Ward Burton, both of whom had benefited from a pit-stop shuffle, Gordon tried a daring pass. Coming out of the first turn, he ducked to the inside and almost crashed.

"When you have a car as good as mine, you worry because a car that good doesn't usually win," he said. "Something always happens. It was running so good, I got a little overconfident, and I thought I could just make the pass on Ward, no problem. But when I bolted out there, the car jumped sideways and I almost lost it right there. It was a little too close for comfort."

About 10 laps later, he had his second close call.

Gordon knows what he is getting himself into when he tries to pass Earnhardt. He knows the seven-time champion is going to test him.

He also knows that if he can make the pass, his next problem is making it stick because Earnhardt is going to come back, press him into the next corner and find out if the kid can make the turn coming out the other side.

"I watch others try to pass Dale on this track and I snicker, because I know he puts you through the test," Gordon said.

"Me, I pass some and I flunk some. Today, I was happy I got through it, because he came right up behind me, slammed on the brakes right on my bumper.

"I tried to slow him down, but it didn't work and I knew I had two choices. I could drive in deep or I could check up. I checked up and I think he drove in deeper than even he thought. He couldn't get away from me. He followed me right up against the wall.

"I was a little upset at the time but hey, it's good for the sport and good to see him racing like that again. I have a lot of respect for him."

Earnhardt also was involved in the start of a six-car pileup on Lap 173, when Chad Little motioned him to go low. Just as Earnhardt was making the move, Little's car wiggled and Earnhardt dipped to miss him. Unfortunately, Burton was moving up on the low side, too.

"It's very disappointing," said Burton, running in the top 10. "I saw the 97 [Little] get loose and the 3 [Earnhardt] slide up into him. I went low and tried not to wreck the 3 and wound up wrecking myself."

Dale Jarrett, who passed Rusty Wallace and Earnhardt to finish fifth, found himself racing door-to-door with Earnhardt most of the day and expressed a perspective that most drivers would have agreed with.

"Dale was awful racey," Jarrett said. "He was messing with everybody a little bit, so the old Earnhardt was back. That's good."

As for Earnhardt, he was pleased with himself, too.

"I think we're gaining momentum," he said after finishing seventh. "If we hadn't knocked the nose in on a restart, I think we could have finished second to Jeff Gordon, anyway."

Second, yes, but yesterday, as Gordon's Chevrolet averaged 134.650 mph, no one was going to beat him.

Pennsylvania 500 results

(Starting position in parentheses)

1. (2) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 200 laps, $165,495.

(6) Mark Martin, Ford, 200, $89,220.

3. (19) Jeff Burton, Ford, 200, $73,170.

4. (4) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, 200, $75,545.

5. (11) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 200, $63,815.

6. (3) Rusty Wallace, Ford, 200, $49,990.

7. (9) Dale Earnhardt, Chevy, 200, $49,890.

8. (17) Ken Schrader, Chevy, 200, $52,290.

9. (16) Ernie Irvan, Pontiac, 200, $42,390.

10. (10) Michael Waltrip, Ford, 200, $47,440.

11. (31) Sterling Marlin, Chevy, 200, $33,890.

12. (18) John Andretti, Pontiac, 200, $44,740.

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