Trying to beat Gordon is Job 1

NASCAR rivals know it's no easy task

February 14, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon, who will lead the field to the start of today's 41st Daytona 500, couldn't be a bigger target if he had a big bull's eye on his back.

"Everyone is shooting at him, that's for sure," said 1988 Winston Cup champion Bill Elliott.

It's not just in this race, it's in every race. He's won the Winston Cup championship three of the last four years. He won a record-tying 13 races last season and is the only driver in the modern era (post-1971) to win at least 10 races in three consecutive years.

But the pressure doesn't appear to be getting to Gordon.

"I hope we're going to raise the bar again this year," he said. "I don't know if that means we're going to win 10 or 13 races. [But] we want to put ourselves in position to be the team they're gunning for. It's much better to be the team to beat than the team trying to be the team to beat."

He need not worry about his place in opposing teams' thoughts. Gordon's team has competitors asking: "How can I beat Jeff Gordon?" and "Can Jeff Gordon be beaten?"

Bobby Labonte, who held off Gordon in a 125-mile qualifying race Thursday and who will start behind him today, is one of few who believe Gordon can be had.

"It can be done," he said. "But you've got to work hard to do it. It would be silly to say we can't beat him, because that's why we're all here."

Various teams have been able to beat him here and there. Last season, he finished 16th in the Daytona 500. And today he is bucking the odds by starting from the pole. It has been 12 years since a driver has won the 500 from the pole, and only seven have done it.

But no one has been able to stop the 27-year-old from becoming the youngest three-time Winston Cup champ. "He's a good driver," seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt acknowledged. "But it's his team you have to beat, and it is the team to beat. You do it with top five finishes, by winning races and by being a contender."

Dale Jarrett, who has finished second and third to Gordon in the championship points battle the past two years, said Earnhardt's formula is easier said than done.

"Whenever I have the best car, we win maybe 40 to 80 percent of the time," Jarrett said. "When Mark [Martin] has the best car, he wins 60 to 70 percent, and when Jeff has it, his team wins 90 percent of the time.

"When I don't have the best car, I win 8 to 10 percent; Mark wins, maybe, 20 percent; and Jeff, when they're not perfect, somehow, finds a way to win 40 to 50 percent. They win a lot of races when they're not the best."

Because of that, said Jarrett, other teams have to do one or two things: be the best car more often or work harder to take on a different thought process late in races.

"I think there are things we have to do in practice to know what to do in the race," Jarrett said. "We have to know -- like Gordon's team knows -- whether two tires or four tires will work the best in a short racing situation. And we have to know what other adjustments to make over the last 15 to 25 laps to make ourselves more competitive in what is essentially a sprint race. We've got to use all the resources we've got to figure it out."

For the past five years, Terry Labonte has been Gordon's teammate. He sees the operation from the inside. And in 1996, when Gordon didn't win the title, Labonte did.

"They're just good," he said. "If we're going to beat them again, it's going to take consistency. They've got such a good team. They know each other so well and they have good chemistry. On top of that, no one outworks them. All of which makes them very tough and very hard to beat."

John Hendrick, president of Hendrick Motorsports, says if anyone is going to beat Gordon for the championship, it will be another Hendrick team, Labonte's or Wally Dallenbach's.

"It's the people on our teams that make the difference," said Hendrick. "I think the only way we get beat is if we beat ourselves. If we don't beat ourselves, no one else touches us."

The confidence is seemingly enough to make other car owners scream. Last season, Jack Rousch, who owns Mark Martin's race team and four others, got so frustrated he claimed Gordon's team cheated with its tires. NASCAR impounded the tires, had them tested every way it could and found no violation.

"I've thought a great deal about how to beat that team," Rousch said. "We're working on our deficiencies. If we're going to beat Gordon -- and I think we're better than we were last year -- it will have to be off the track, because I think Mark Martin is a great driver. I wouldn't trade him for Jeff Gordon. I've just got to encourage our teams to reach their potential."

Perhaps, said Rusty Wallace, inspiring other teams to be better is Gordon's real gift to his sport.

"I think it's good for everybody to compete to a new level," Wallace said. "Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Gordon, each of them has inspired those racing against them to reach higher.

"How do you beat Gordon?

"It's a damn good question," he said. "I don't have the answer. All I know is it's a hell of a job to beat him, and I'm exercising everything in my mind to get our team to the point where we can beat him."

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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