For Gordon, razor-thin edge

Auto racing: Last year's spectacularly dangerous move to win the Daytona 500 is all part of the game for a man who loves to push the limits behind the wheel.

February 16, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon looks sleek in his black-and-white driving suit designed to match the millennium silver paint scheme on his Chevrolet for Sunday's Daytona 500.

"The car is racy and I'm racy," Gordon said. "The team is pumped up and ready to go."

A year after making his startling, three-abreast move into turn one to set up the pass that would lead him to victory in the 1999 Daytona 500, Gordon does, indeed, seem ready to go at it again.

"I never want to have to make a move like that to win a race," he said. "But as competitive as it is and if you're carrying momentum on the racetrack, you've got to keep it going."

It was a move that took your breath away. Gordon dropped low to pull up on the inside of Rusty Wallace, who had Mike Skinner running on his outside. And there in front of him, as he raced well below the white line on the shoulder of the track, was Ricky Rudd running slow.

Everyone agrees on all that. But after a year, opinions vary on just exactly how dangerous Gordon's move was.

"Really, the only thing that made that pass a big deal was Ricky running slow on the apron," said Gordon. "I didn't know he was there when I dropped down to make the pass, but Ricky saw what was going on and Rusty [Wallace] was aware enough. He blocked as far as he could and then had to give it up. I know it was very difficult for Rusty to take on the losing end.

"But you have to know, I'm never going to drive into the back of somebody. It can be amazing how fast you can get on the brakes. If Rusty hadn't of moved up, I would have hit the brakes and probably have gone all the way back to 20th. That's all. There never would have been a wreck."

Yesterday afternoon, over a casual lunch, Rudd blinked in disbelief. Yes, he had seen Gordon coming. But if Wallace hadn't moved up the racetrack, could Gordon have avoided a wreck?

Rudd didn't think so then and he doesn't think so now.

"He simply got in too deep," said Rudd. "Could he have slowed down and avoided the wreck? No. Could he have avoided the situation? Yes. But once he was in so deep, he had only two choices, because with our speed differential he could never have gotten on the brakes fast enough.

"All he could have done was run into the back of me or he could have turned right into Rusty and then there would have been a big pileup.

"Jeff had a choice: Do I want to die or do I want to wreck? Easy choice."

Rudd, who will start on the front row in Sunday's 500 beside his teammate and pole-sitter Dale Jarrett, said he hated to be put in the position of having an impact on the finish of the 500 that way.

"All I could do was commit to the edge of the grass," he said. "It had been a long time since we'd seen three-wide here. But what made Jeff's move dangerous was that other competitors were put in the position of having to give [way]. I think Rusty saved a lot of people's health that day."

It is difficult, however, to persuade Gordon to that way of thinking. As a rookie in 1993, he was good enough here to run in the lead pack of drivers with Dale Earnhardt and Jarrett.

"I was lucky enough to be very competitive to where I could learn from the best right away," he said. "I don't think the pass I made last year or the one I made Sunday in the Bud Shootout were risky or required nerve.

"To me, it's not about nerve. Well, maybe a little bit. Mostly, it's about the control you have of your car, the knowledge you have of your competitors and knowing where the limits are."

Gordon has more than a little of the aggressive Earnhardt style in him, but he also knows where the edge is.

"Seldom," he said, "do you see me lose control of the car or cause a wreck. I do get the other drivers' attention and keep them guessing, though."

An example of that has already been seen this week. After dipping to the inside of Sterling Marlin in the third turn on the last lap of the Bud Shootout, Gordon held his position long enough to force Marlin to give way.

Afterward, he came into a news conference and said that with Marlin sitting right beside him, "If Sterling hadn't have backed off, I would have."

Both agreed that pass was about knowing what they could and couldn't do and for how long. But there was no doubt Marlin took a sidelong glance at Gordon. You could almost see his brain processing the information.

Which brings up the question: The next time they're racing side-by-side into a corner, will Marlin give way or wait for Gordon to back off? And will Wallace, who also heard of the comment and who is still searching for his first career Daytona 500 victory?

"I don't feel like I gave anything away there," Gordon said of admitting he'd give in in a high-speed game of chicken. "Maybe they hold their lines and maybe I don't back off. Then they might be saying I lied. But I always say what I think. If it had been Earnhardt on the outside of me instead of Marlin in the Shootout, that pass probably wouldn't have worked."

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