Gordon's return tops off year of tragedy, triumph

Pain, joy mixed equally in unparalleled season

Auto Racing

November 30, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

For the 2001 Winston Cup Series, the season began with sorrow at the Daytona 500 when seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash and has ended on a high note, with unprecedented achievements and performances.

Tonight, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the Winston Cup drivers and teams will celebrate the season with their annual awards ceremony. And there, at the head table, will be Jeff Gordon, the sport's newly crowned champion - and the only active four-time champ in the series.

But Gordon's emotions, like those of nearly everyone else, will be tempered by the events of this year.

"You know me," Gordon said by phone from New York yesterday, "Racing is not the most important thing in my life. There's Brooke [his wife] and my family. My mom has a serious health issue, which I'm not going to get into because of her privacy, and my sister is going to be getting married.

"All those things matter more to me. And this year has opened my eyes even wider."

There's been a lot of fun in New York this week and a lot of deep thought, too. Gordon and his wife celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary with dinner at Danielle's, a French restaurant, and then went to the play, Mama Mia. There have also been appearances on The Today Show, Regis and Kelly and David Letterman's show, and a trip to ground zero.

"Dale's death last February made me understand that [this sport] can take anyone, no matter who you are or what you've accomplished," Gordon said. "And then Sept. 11. You feel invaded, like your freedom has been invaded.

"It certainly puts everything in perspective to go to ground zero. It's mind-boggling to experience the negatives and the positives. To see those people pouring their hearts into trying to find those lost people and to see the families who have come there grieving, still hoping to recover someone they love.

"Because of all that, I think I appreciate my family even more."

Losing Earnhardt was also a huge loss for the sport. But when it was suggested to Gordon that he seems to have stepped in to fill a void with his fourth title, he said he doesn't see it that way.

"Whether it's Dale or me or someone else who is no longer here, the sport will continue to go on," he said. "I'm not here to fill a void. It just happens to be that our team was the one on top. We all play a part in our own way; a significant part. But there is no one guy that it rides on, that holds it all together."

And, perhaps, this year is a well-documented example of that, because despite all that has gone on, within and outside the sport, there are achievements to be celebrated.

The season expanded to 36 races. That brought in two new tracks in Chicago and Kansas City and expanded attendance. There were a record 19 different winners this season. The new television contract kicked in with FOX and NBC and ratings were up throughout the season. Dodge returned to the sport for the first time in nearly 20 years and won three races.

NASCAR struggled under the glare of a larger media light. Its initial investigation of the Earnhardt crash was handled badly, and NASCAR seemed more a reactionary organization than a confident, forward-thinking one.

But there were breakthroughs on safety. The sanctioning body did, eventually, mandate head and neck restraint systems and, for the first time, held a meeting with team owners, drivers and crews to reach a consensus on rules that are geared toward safer competition at Daytona and Talladega speedways next season.

"This has been a really odd year," said car owner Jack Roush, whose own drivers - Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth - all had disappointing seasons by their standards. "The untimely death of four people in [the last 19 months] due to a similar type of body injury has given everyone pause.

"It's caused us to think about safety equipment in cars and how the equipment is used in cars. Those thoughts have absorbed the energy of teams. There has always been some effort toward safety, but the rate of change, the rate of inquiry and the rate of maturity has been moved more than one year ahead - maybe as many as three years.

"And that will be one of Dale Earnhardt's greatest gifts to drivers who will follow him."

Coming at Gordon's championship season from a different perspective, this fourth title will be one of his great achievements. It comes two years after his crew chief, Ray Evernham, left Gordon's Rick Hendrick-owned team to head up the Dodge program.

It also comes two years after Gordon's detractors began saying about how he would be "just another driver" without Evernham, who was given the lion's share of credit for Gordon's first three titles.

This season - and last - Gordon earned respect by the way he handled adversity. He was the one who found Robbie Loomis, his current crew chief. He was the one who made decisions about the car, about what it needed and sometimes about when pit stops should be made - all things previously left to Evernham.

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