Gordon soft-pedals streak Some will celebrate if driver fails to win fifth in a row tonight

August 22, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Streaks are funny things. They can come. They can go. Fast.

Jeff Gordon is on a record-singeing streak. He has tied the modern record of four consecutive Winston Cup victories.

Around the garages, other teams look at Gordon and his rainbow-colored Chevrolet with envy.

Some, like Rusty Wallace, who won 10 races in 1993, can remember how people used to talk about his team. They said Wallace was lucky. Said his team cheated. Said he must have some unfair advantage and couldn't be that unbeatable.

At the time, Wallace said his team was on a roll and had the flow. He says Gordon is in such a groove.

However, many others are saying those same bad things about Gordon, who has eight wins this season and is going for the modern (post-1972) record of five straight tonight in the Goody's Headache Powder 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Wallace himself has positioned his Ford to stop Gordon's run by winning the pole, with a 123.554 mph lap. Gordon qualified seventh at 123.039 mph.

"I have to do what I have to do, and he can do whatever he has to do," Wallace said. "His winning five in a row isn't really a big deal to me, but he's riding that wave, and at some point that old horse will buck you off."

Yesterday morning, Gordon stood for more than an hour surrounded by a mass of print and television reporters answering questions about his streak. He was good-natured. His blue eyes reflected his inner delight at being in position to do something no other Winston Cup driver has done in modern times.

If anyone expected him to sound self-satisfied, overconfident or self-absorbed, they were disappointed.

"I didn't even realize it was a big deal until this week, when all the interview requests came in," Gordon said. "The big deal to me is the championship. Winning another championship, that's the pressure point. The championship vs. five in a row? Five in a row is unimportant to me.

"I'll be really happy to just get out of Bristol with a Top 5 or even a Top 10 finish."

Such a result would make a lot of people happy. The non-Gordon fans in the crowd would rejoice.

Wallace remembers that when he was in the midst of his 10-win season, NASCAR president Bill France Jr. came to him, congratulated him on his run and then said, "You're stinking up the show."

Yesterday, Gordon said he believes NASCAR may be just a little relieved if he loses.

"NASCAR's thing is equality," Gordon said. "But NASCAR can't control the people. It can't control the driver, crew chief and pit crew combinations. NASCAR can make sure we're all within the rules, but they can't control how well we work together or if a caution comes with 20 laps to go.

"But I do think they want as many different drivers to win as possible."

Mike Helton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, said that over the years there have been a number of drivers who have run well. He says if you ask Jeff Gordon fans about Gordon's current run, they would say it's good, and if you asked fans of Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton or any number of others, they would say it's bad.

What does NASCAR say?

"At the end of the day, the most critical thing is someone being able to race with him," Helton said. "If Jeff won all 33 races, it might not be terrific, but if another car was right up against his fender at every finish, it would be OK.

"Right now, it's probably not as close as we'd like it to be. We'd like it to be about a millisecond margin of victory."

Helton, however, did not seem worried.

"We think it will take care of itself," he said, looking at the schedule that moves from Bristol to Loudon, N.H., to Darlington, S.C., to Richmond, Va., over the next several weeks.

Helton also said there is no question but that the streak has been good for Winston Cup racing.

"You've got to have heroes," he said. "That's what attracts the attention and Jeff has attracted the attention."

As for other teams' frustration with Gordon's success and off-the-record comments that nobody can be that good "without doing something to that car," Helton says NASCAR has inspected Gordon's car enough to know that nothing unusual is going on.

"Given his performance, we've had ample opportunity to inspect his car," said Helton, whose officials inspect the winning car and two or three others after every race. "We feel it's the chemistry and hard work and ability of the driver that has made the difference."

Bill Elliott, who won four consecutive races in 1992 and is currently 17th in the points standings, believes Gordon probably has the best chance of anyone who has attempted to win five straight so far.

"That team is more organized than any other team out there," Elliott said. "And they're versatile. They've won their four straight on four totally different race tracks. We're good at different places. Most teams are like that. But not them. They're good totally across the board and, really, I don't think any one knows how good they really are."

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