Gordon in driver's seat to clinch Winston Cup in Ariz. Racer pursues title No. 3

Martin trails by 358 points

Auto Racing

October 25, 1998|By CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

PHOENIX -- Jeff Gordon refuses to consider the 1998 Winston Cup championship race over until it is, well, over.

"As far as I'm concerned, any time there's a possibility it can't be won, then I have to look at that possibility," Gordon said yesterday at Phoenix International Raceway, the site of today's Dura-Lube 500.

There's very little realistic possibility that Mark Martin, who trails Gordon by 358 points coming into today's race, can deny Gordon the championship. It's only slightly more likely, in fact, that Martin will be able to put off Gordon's coronation beyond this afternoon.

If Gordon gains 12 points on Martin today, Gordon clinches the championship. If Gordon finished fifth and Martin was eighth and neither led, for example, the title would be decided.

Martin's situation is really even more desperate. Unless Martin gains at least 57 points today, Gordon would win the championship just by starting the final two races at Rockingham and Atlanta.

"It doesn't necessarily matter where or when," Gordon said. "We just want to win our third championship."

He would, however, clearly like to win this one with more of a flourish at season's end. In each of the past three seasons, Gordon's team hasn't exactly come storming down the stretch.

He won his first championship by 34 points over Dale Earnhardt in 1995, but with four races to go his lead was 302 points. In 1996, he led Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte by 111 points with four to go but lost to Labonte by 37 points.

Last year, Gordon led Martin by 125 points with two to go and Dale Jarrett by 77 going to the final race, but had to hold on for a 14-point margin over Jarrett and a 29-point edge over Martin.

"We want to come out of this season battling all the way hard at every race for a win and being a contender to win, unlike what we've done the last couple of years," said Gordon, who starts 12th today outside of Martin's Ford.

Consistent excellence has been the hallmark of Gordon's season since he was involved in a wreck with Rusty Wallace late in the Pontiac 400 at Richmond on June 6. Gordon wrecked and finished 37th that night but set his jaw and went to Michigan the next week with a fire in his belly.

He was third at Michigan, then second the next week at Pocono. He won the following week at Sears Point, the first win in a streak of seven victories in nine races. Since the Richmond wreck, Gordon has 17 straight top-five finishes, with eight firsts and five seconds. His most recent win came Oct. 17 at Daytona.

"I don't know if it had anything to do with all of the top fives," Gordon said of his crash at Richmond. "But I think for a couple of races after that it certainly fired us up.

"I think the whole team did get a different attitude. We have that refuse-to-lose attitude all the time, but they took it to another level."

Gordon said he thinks the car he'll be in today is the best he has had at Phoenix, one of three tracks -- along with Texas and Las Vegas -- now on the circuit where he hasn't won a Winston Cup race. Gordon has been to Victory Lane here, however -- he won the 1991 U.S. Auto Club Silver Crown race during the Copper World Classic.

Both of the drivers starting on the front row today, Ken Schrader and Kenny Irwin, also have had open-wheel success at this track. Schrader has won seven USAC and two NASCAR Southwest tour events here, while Irwin has won the Silver Crown race in the Copper World Classic.

"For a long time, before I got into NASCAR, this was a special place for me," Gordon said. "To me, this was like our Daytona. This was a big, big event for all the open-wheel guys. I always have to correct people when they say I haven't won here. I have, it just hasn't been in a stock car. I want to change that."

If he should win today, it would be his 12th victory in what Gordon calls a "dream season" and would keep alive at least a mathematical chance he could break Richard Petty's modern-era record of 13 wins in a season. A top-five finish would be his 18th straight, tying him with David Pearson's 1968 record streak.

Gordon is still only 27 years old, but everywhere he turns he keeps running into history.

Lineup 2

1. (33) Ken Schrader, Chevrolet, 131.234 mph.

2. (28) Kenny Irwin, Ford, 131.205.

3. (81) Kenny Wallace, Ford, 130.605.

4. (94) Bill Elliott, Ford, 130.373.

5. (98) Rich Bickle, Ford, 130.279.

6. (2) Rusty Wallace, Ford, 130.180.

7. (75) Rick Mast, Ford, 130.105.

8. (31) Mike Skinner, Chevrolet, 130.100.

9. (41) David Green, Chevrolet, 130.025.

10. (13) Ted Musgrave, Ford, 129.931.

11. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 129.884.

12. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 129.847.

13. (11) Brett Bodine, Ford, 129.814.

14. (22) Ward Burton, Pontiac, 129.791.

15. (26) Johnny Benson, Ford, 129.781.

16. (40) Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet, 129.762.

17. (91) Todd Bodine, Chevrolet, 129.758.

18. (23) Jimmy Spencer, Ford, 129.688.

19. (43) John Andretti, Pontiac, 129.510.

20. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 129.459.

21. (10) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 129.441.

22. (12) Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, 129.399.

23. (50) Wally Dallenbach, Chevrolet, 129.329.

24. (77) Robert Pressley, Ford, 129.167.

25. (16) Kevin Lepage, Ford, 129.120.

26. (7) Geoff Bodine, Ford, 129.079.

27. (96) Mike Bliss, Chevrolet, 129.060.

28. (78) Gary Bradberry, Ford, 129.060.

29. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 129.055.

30. (90) Dick Trickle, Ford, 129.000.

31. (44) Kyle Petty, Pontiac, 128.972.

32. (42) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 128.958.

33. (46) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, 128.871.

34. (9) Jerry Nadeau, Ford, 128.820.

35. (1) Steve Park, Chevrolet, 128.815.

36. (30) Derrike Cope, Pontiac, 128.728.

37. (18) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, provisional.

38. (99) Jeff Burton, Ford, provisional.

39. (3) Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet, provisional.

40. (4) Bobby Hamilton, Chevrolet, provisional.

41. (36) Ernie Irvan, Pontiac, provisional.

42. (97) Chad Little, Ford, provisional.

43. (35) Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet, provisional.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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