Showing his human side, Gordon hears cheers

ON MOTOR SPORTS

April 23, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

On this Easter morning, Jeff and Brooke Gordon will get dressed up and go to church.

They have much to be thankful for. Jeff won a race for the first time in 13 races last Sunday in Talladega, Ala. And after it was over, he found himself greeted by cheering fans. Jeff was stunned by the warmth of his reception, and Brooke, smiling shyly, held tightly to his arm as they climbed into their car and were driven away.

A few years ago, when "Wonder Boy" was in the midst of winning his third Winston Cup championship, cheers were hard to come by. Boos usually drowned any out. Signs that once said, "Anyone but [Dale] Earnhardt," now said, "Anyone but Gordon."

On one of those afternoons, I asked Richard Petty about the disdain with which Gordon was greeted.

"What Jeff needs to do is lose some," Petty said. "If he'd go on a nice, long losing streak and then come back and start winning, the people would be with him and they'd stay with him then."

Gordon, of course, did not want to go on a losing streak to become popular. But fate intervened. Late last season, Gordon's longtime crew chief, Ray Evernham, left and then, at the end of year, the heart of his all-star pit crew sold itself to the Robert Yates team, leaving Gordon and company to reorganize and, basically, start from scratch.

After two quick wins immediately after Evernham's departure, Gordon went on a 13-race losing streak that tied the longest in his career.

"It wouldn't surprise me if Richard was right," Gordon said. "Everybody likes a winner, but no one likes someone who wins so much. I didn't blame them [the fans]. Getting 10 and 13 wins in a season, I was as baffled as they were.

"There's a lot of sense in what Richard said. And having to fight our way back to victory lane, it showed a lot of what we were made of to come back."

Gordon said "to be knocked down a notch was very tough," but added that he thinks he has not only earned cheers from more fans but also feels as if he has earned a little more respect in the garage.

Last Sunday's victory moved Gordon up to seventh in the Winston Cup points race. With nine different winners in nine races, no one has been able to take a sizable lead. Asked if he could be a contender, Gordon hesitated only a moment.

"We're a ways off from being a championship contender," he said. "But I'm not saying we can't be. We have to do the right things to be consistent, and if you ride around fifth long enough, eventually you end up winning. Now, we have to build on it."

So, today, when Jeff and Brooke go to church, they will have a lot to be thankful for. But, Gordon said, that doesn't mean they will be so self-absorbed that they will lose sight of what's really important.

"People, sometimes, seem to lose the meaning of Easter," Jeff said. "It's about Jesus and God. We like to go to church and think about that."

Easter plans

While some racing series work the Easter holiday, NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit does not. Sometimes, besides forgetting the true meaning of holidays, it is easy to forget that Winston Cup drivers have lives beyond the race track and that their time at home is like that spent by many of their fans.

On this Easter Sunday, most of the sport's participants are planning to make the most of a weekend with their families.

For some, like the Gordons, activities will center around homes and churches. Scott Pruitt, a Winston Cup rookie this season, will take his wife, Judy, and their family to his parent's house for a huge Easter egg hunt.

"My parents own about 50 acres and they use five of them to stage separate Easter egg hunts for infants, children, teen-agers and adults," said Pruitt, who became a new father Valentine's Day. "You should see the adults; they go crazy."

Car owner Eddie Wood said he, his wife, Carroll; daughter, Jordan, and son, Jonathan, are going to New York for the weekend.

"Jonathan races Friday night, and then we're all going to go to the city for the rest of the weekend and see a Broadway play," Wood said. "It will be something different, and after so much work over nine straight weekends of racing, it should be a good time together."

Ricky Rudd's family will join his sister at a beach in South Carolina, while for the third straight year, Rusty Wallace will take his family on vacation to the Bahamas.

"We go on rented boats and it's wonderful because everyone is able to go because it's spring break from school and Easter," Wallace said. "It's good, quality time."

When everyone gets back, it will be on to Fontana, Calif., for next Sunday's race.

Nuts and bolts

NHRA Funny Car journeyman Bob Gilbertson won his first race at Houston Raceway Park last weekend. He's 45 and an independent, operating his own team out of his own pocket. "If we had some money, we'd be dangerous," Gilbertson said. The win elevated him into the Top 10 for the first time. He goes into next weekend's NHRA Moto 1.net national championships at Virginia Motorsports Park ranked No. 7. ... The newest issue of Rolling Stone magazine features a story on Winston Cup rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. ...

The CART FedEx Series will visit Monterrey, Mexico, in 2001. ... Dan Gurney is auctioning off items from his personal collection over the internet at RaceSearch.com. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Hoag Cancer Center in Newport Beach, Calif. The sale, which will include everything from driver gear and engine parts to race cars, will go on for the next several months, with new items being added every few days.

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