J. Burton takes the high road toward rivalry with Gordon Winning Richmond tactic could signal future duels

September 14, 1998|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- Sports thrive on rivalries: The Celtics and Larry Bird vs. the Lakers and Magic Johnson. Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova. The Redskins and Cowboys, Yankees and Red Sox.

Lately, though, a good old-fashioned conflict has been missing in NASCAR Winston Cup racing and everyone involved pines for something along the lines of Richard Petty vs. Bobby Allison.

One of the reasons there's no one-on-one weekly duel over the 33-race season is Jeff Gordon. The guy and his team are just too good. They dominate. Look at the numbers. By year's end, Gordon probably will have run in 189 career races with at least 40 victories, a fantastic wins-per-start percentage.

He's won 10 of the 25 races contested this year. That's a .400 average.

Lately, at least, Jeff Burton, winner of the Exide 400 Saturday night in Richmond by about five feet, has been a worthy adversary for Gordon. He's not intimidated by the suggestion that he might be the McCoy opposite Gordon's Hatfield, but he is quick to point out: "Jeff's won 10 races this year while we've won two. It's not a big rivalry right now. I've got to get off my butt and win some before it can come true. We'll see."

Saturday, pole-sitter Rusty Wallace breezed the first 100 laps, with Burton second. The victor then held the lead at every 20-lap increment from 160 to 320 of the 400-lap run. Then Gordon took over from second place.

Shortly thereafter, however, Burton, cashing in on some racing luck, gained the top spot again. "The key was getting the caution [flag] with 35 [laps] to go. We were in trouble with a long run. We got an extra pit stop and it was a great one."

Lap after lap shot by as 103,000 spectators went mildly insane, No. 99 [Burton] on the bottom of the track, No. 24 [Gordon] riding a little higher in the second lane. The suspense heightened.

"Anytime I get somebody late in a race trying to pass me," Burton said, "I get flashbacks of my father having me sit in the motor home years ago. We were going to dirt-track races, I was racing go-carts and he'd tell me: 'Stay on the bottom. Stay on the bottom. Don't ever get off the bottom.' "

Burton had raced the bottom all evening with great success, ending up leading for 203 laps. But now it was time to alter his strategy.

"Gordon's car wasn't very good [running a tight line] on the bottom and he was real good on top," Burton said. "He was coming at us outside, so I moved up to take his groove away. If I stayed low, I knew I was dead."

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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