Drivers steer in opposite directions

Gordon, Burton differ on weekday routines

September 26, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. -- While Dale Jarrett leads the Winston Cup points race, two men named Jeff are tied for the lead in races won this season.

Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton have each won five times. And though their first names are the same, their approach to their everyday jobs is different.

Gordon, who has moved to Florida, leaves the weekday work at the team's race shop near Charlotte, N.C., in the capable hands of his crew chief, Ray Evernham. Burton, meanwhile, continues his hands-on approach, right down to helping design the car's chassis.

Both are comfortable in their decisions, but Gordon admits his absence leaves him open to second-guessing.

"It's important to show my support," said Gordon, the three-time champion who will start seventh today in the MBNA Gold 400. "I was nervous when I made the move to Florida. I didn't want it to come across the wrong way, that I didn't want to be there.

"I want to be there but my schedule off the race track has become so much more busy. Ray is real understanding. He knows that if I'm constant ly traveling and have no time with Brooke [Gordon's wife] and to get away on my boat or to the movies, that I won't be as mentally sharp on race day."

Gordon, like Burton, used to spend every day at the shop. He grew up in a race shop, learning everything there was to know about open-wheel cars. Then he moved to stock-car racing and found there was more to learn.

"When I worked for Bill Davis, I lived in Charlotte and drove an hour to the shop every day," Gordon said. "Now, I live in Florida and it's an hour-and-a-half plane ride.

"I think, especially early on, it's very important to learn the car and be there. It's almost as much for yourself as the team. You want to show people it's important to you."

Every situation is different, of course, and much of it depends on driver and crew chief combinations.

Gordon has Evernham -- although there is a rumor the crew chief is leaving -- and they have long had mutual trust and understanding.

Burton has Frank Stoddard, who has taken some of the pressure off the driver, allowing him to cut back a day or two on his shop visits. But Burton's car owner, Jack Roush, said he wants his driver at the shop.

"If the driver [and] crew chief are of one mind and melded together through a strong personal relationship and chemistry, it might not be that important for the driver to come to the garage," Roush said.

"But if you're building a team and you have a driver who is growing in capability having the driver spend time at the shop with the team is important."

Roush said Burton, who will start 28th today, and his team, which is fifth in the points chase because of inconsistency, are still growing.

Gordon is sixth in points, a major drop after back-to-back titles, but the reason is car trouble and not driver trouble, as the team has coped with being unable to finish a race six times.

"I think it helps when a driver understands the car, what goes on at the race shop, who is responsible for what," Burton said. "A lot of drivers become very down on their racing programs, but don't know why. That doesn't make any sense to me.

"If the driver's not willing to get involved with his team enough to know what's going on -- why should a driver be any different from a quarterback or a pitcher? They practice every day. Why should we be different?"

Burton looked down the line of cars in the garage here to Gordon's team and backed off that opinion a little.

"I look at what they do and all I think is, `Well, it works for them,' " Burton said. "Jeff and Ray are comfortable with the way they do things. Me, I like to get my nose in all of it.

"I don't want to be led around by the hand and simply told what we're doing. I start feeling left out and then I start feeling like a caged animal, just kept around to be fed and to perform."

NOTES: Outside pole-sitter Jerry Nadeau crashed his Pontiac during yesterday's final practice for today's MBNA Gold 400. He will go to a backup car and start 43rd. Rookie Tony Stewart will move up to the front row beside pole-sitter Rusty Wallace. Casey Atwood won the accident-marred MBNA Gold 200 Busch Grand National race yesterday, earning $40,775. He averaged 91.382 mph over 2: 11: 19. Adam Petty was shaken up in one of the eight accidents. He was checked at a local hospital and released.

MBNA Gold 400 What: Winston Cup race.

Where: Dover Downs International Speedway, Dover, Del.

When: Today, 12: 30 p.m.

TV: TNN.

Pole-sitter: Rusty Wallace (track-record 159.964 mph).

Defending champion: Bobby Labonte.

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