No high-5 for Gordon 5th-place finish ends streak

Martin wins

August 23, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- A teal blue haze came silently over the Unaka Mountains, as the high-powered lights surrounding the packed, 135,000-seat grandstand glowed in the twilight. It was then that 43 stock cars roared to life on the half-mile Bristol Speedway oval and Rusty Wallace, in his Elvis Presley stenciled Ford, led the field to the line for the start of the Goody's Headache Powder 500.

Moments later they were off in a race to determine whether Winston Cup history would be made.

Back in the seventh starting spot, Jeff Gordon was looking for his fifth straight victory, a feat that would make him the only such winner in the modern (since 1972) era of the sport.

But Gordon, who had parlayed a great team, incredible luck and his own skill into a four-race winning streak, never got his car quite right last night and came up short in fifth place. It was Mark Martin winning for the sixth time this season, and for the first time since his father, stepmother and stepsister died in a plane crash Aug. 8.

"I want to thank the race fans," said a joyous Martin, eyes glistened with tears. "Their sympathy and love of the sport has meant everything. My dad would have been proud of this one."

The victory, by 2.185 seconds over Jeff Burton, brings Martin within 67 points of Gordon, who leads the championship points race. Finishing between Martin, Burton and Gordon were Wallace and Dale Jarrett.

As Martin averaged 86.918 mph through 13 cautions, and led 190 of the 500 laps, including the last 180, he could look in his mirror and see Gordon trailing nearly a half-lap behind.

Gordon, the defending Winston Cup champion who has led at least one lap in each of his last 14 races, did not lead even one last night.

"We got fifth," said Gordon. "Does that count for anything? I'm pretty happy with fifth. I'm beat. I've been fighting a little bit of a cold the last couple of days. I didn't even know if I could make 500 laps."

Gordon said his team performed like a champion.

"We did exactly what we needed to do," he said. "We got a whole lot more out of the car than I thought we could and the guys did a great job in the pits. It [the car] started out pretty loose and we got it tightened up there at the end. We were able to gain on 'em."

But not enough. And that means seven men remain tied with four straight victories in modern times, and that there are still only two drivers in the 50-year history of NASCAR who have ever won five straight: Bobby Allison in 1971 and Richard Petty in 1971 and also in 1967, when he went on to set the all-time record for consecutive wins at 10 in his famous No. 43 Plymouth.

"When I was going for five, it sure didn't get the attention that this did," said Martin. "Not even close. I saw an interview with Dale Earnhardt, and he probably spoke for the rest of us four-race winners when he reminded that a bunch of us had done what Jeff did. But it's an incredible feat and I for one, believe Jeff is the greatest race car driver who ever drove a race car.

"But I'm grateful for what I've got and I've been fortunate enough not to win so much that so many people don't like me."

It did not start as an auspicious night for Gordon. With introductions came a ride for Gordon and his wife Brooke in a red Corvette convertible that was greeted by massive waves of boos as they circled the .533-mile racetrack.

Martin? He was cheered with heartfelt sympathy and appreciation.

Gordon's seventh-place starting position was his worst in the last 15 races, and, perhaps, an omen. He would slip back to eighth on the eighth lap, and at one point in the final 200 laps fell all the way to 10th.

The first of the 13 caution flags that would slow the race for a total of 86 laps came on Lap 42 and made several hearts beat faster. As the then-leader, Ricky Rudd approached the rear bumper of Darrell Waltrip, Waltrip made a move on Morgan Shepherd in the second turn and Shepherd's car went out of control and into the outside wall.

Martin, running second, just missed the spinning Shepherd, as did Jeremy Mayfield, who was running third.

At that point, Rudd, who is still in need of a victory this season to extend his 15-year streak of winning at least one race a season, was the class of the field.

By lap 100, Mayfield, Rudd, Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Martin were running nose-to-tail, and Bobby Labonte and Gordon were closing to within inches. But when Joe Nemechek lost control at the end of the front stretch on Lap 119, the lineup began to change.

Gordon picked up one position to sixth, while Wallace, who had come out in first place after the initial pit stop under the caution, lost a lap and fell back to 39th when he had to pit a second time due to a brake problem.

Through the evening, seven drivers would exchange the lead 12 times.

One of them came under caution on lap 200, after an Ernie Irvan spin in front of the leaders on lap 197. This time it was Jarrett who came out the leader, followed by Mayfield, Martin and Gordon, who picked up another two positions.

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