At 30, Gordon shows his exhaust to pack

No rival drivers close to his feats - and No. 1 isn't about to let down

Daytona 500

February 17, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Winston Cup racing is a rugged sport. Its roots are in the hills of North Carolina, where they were watered by the stills of mountain men.

Junior Johnson left his plow horses standing in a field to go drive in his first stock car race. Lee Petty protested his son Richard's first victory and claimed it for himself. Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison once jumped from their cars for a fistfight on national TV. Darrell Waltrip was "Jaws" and Dale Earnhardt was known as "The Intimidator."

But last Feb. 18, Earnhardt was killed here at Daytona International Speedway. Jeff Gordon, a rail-thin, sweet-faced man with a high-pitched voice from California by way of Indiana, a man Earnhardt once dubbed "Wonder Boy," who has been nothing if not Earnhardt's opposite in nature, has emerged as the sport's top driver.

Going into today's Daytona 500, no one is even within winking distance of the four-time champion. He will start in the second row behind pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson, who drives a car in which Gordon just happens to share ownership.

"Years ago, I used to go to New York knowing that Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress would always be at the head table, would always be the champion," said Gordon's car owner, Rick Hendrick.

"I never dreamed I'd ever get there. You'd see them and you'd get pumped up and you'd want to do it, but then you'd go home and reality would hit and you'd think, `Yeah, but I've got to beat Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress to get there.' "

Hendrick paused, looking over at Gordon's flame-throwing Dupont Chevrolet with the golden 24 on its side.

"I think a lot of people feel that about Gordon," he said. "He's a fierce competitor."

At age 30, just entering his 10th year in the sport, Gordon has 58 wins and four Winston Cup titles. That means that while he probably won't reach Richard Petty's record 200 career victories, he has a reasonable shot at David Pearson's 105 wins and Petty's and Earnhardt's record seven championships.

No other active driver his age comes close. In fact, only one other active driver of any age is within shouting distance of any of Gordon's numbers. That's Rusty Wallace, who has 54 wins and one title. But Wallace is 45.

Gordon came into the sport tattooed for the limelight. He was groomed by his stepfather to be a superstar. And as the stock car racing world prepares to kick off its 54th year of professional racing at the 44th Daytona 500, there is no doubt Gordon is on the mountaintop.

Even Childress, who owned the cars Earnhardt drove to six of his seven titles, recognizes that.

"No matter what you'd say about Jeff Gordon, you'd be understating it," he said. "He'll go down as one of the greats of all time, and Jeff's team with Hendrick, I'd say they are at the top."

Gordon surpassed Tony Stewart by 349 points to win the 2001 championship, wrapping it up before the last race of the season took place in New Hampshire.

And Gordon is growing. A frightening thought. He's getting smarter and, sometimes, he is more aggressive than even he expects. In New Hampshire, Gordon was so angry at Robby Gordon for bumping him from the lead that when a caution flag flew, the champ raced up behind and booted him hard in the rear end. Robby Gordon won the race.

"I thought it was awful, because I lost control," Jeff Gordon said. "But I had so many fans tell me it was all right, that it showed I was human."

His even disposition has been his biggest drawback. Gordon almost always seems too good to be true. But his wife, Brooke, insists, "What you see is what you get. He's just very professional."

That cool approach, that handsome face, that calm and tidy personality combined with all those wins make him NASCAR's most booed driver. But maybe now, after the incident in New Hampshire, he seems more like a NASCAR driver from the old school.

And he can talk a strong game, too, when he shares his assessment of the field.

"I don't really look out there and say, `Who do we have to beat?' " he said. "I say, `How do we keep from beating ourselves.' "

Already he has had more success than he ever dreamed of. And he admits to enjoying the view from above. "I don't know any driver who doesn't want to be on top of his sport as often as possible," he said.

Just the same, Gordon realizes he can't spend valuable time thinking about supremacy. He is always aware of those lining up to dethrone him, even as he focuses on winning races.

"I've never felt like I'm alone at the top," he said. "I've been fortunate to be on top in this sport at very good times, and 2001 was one of those years. You could see with the new television contract and the additional exposure that if you could be on top last year, you should do it.

"But there are too many different personalities in this sport. This sport is way too competitive to really say this guy is in a league of his own."

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