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Posted: Wednesday November 11, 1998 01:18 PM

This week's topics:
The King and I | 1998 in Review

The King and I  

A third title in hand, Jeff Gordon is on pace to break Richard Petty's marks

By Ed Hinton

Sports Illustrated
  Gordon was bubbly after getting his 13th win of the year, a modern-era record, on Sunday in Atlanta. Jim Gund
No driver in NASCAR—or in any other form of motor racing—has been so successful at as young an age as 27-year-old Jeff Gordon. His victory in Sunday's rain-shortened, season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was his 13th of the year, tying a modern-era record Richard Petty set in 1975, at age 38. With 42 career wins, Gordon is the youngest driver by one year to surpass 40 victories and the youngest by seven years to win a third season championship. So, how far can Gordon go in the record books? The possibilities are astounding.

Gordon, who wrapped up the 1998 Winston Cup championship on Nov. 1, has been on a tear since winning seven races and his first Winston Cup title in '95. He won 10 races in '96 and again in '97, and 13 this season, including three of the last four, to become the first driver in the modern era (since '72) to have 10 or more victories three years in a row.

If he can maintain his pace of the last four years—10 wins per season—Gordon could break Petty's record of 200 career Winston Cup victories, a mark long considered not only unbeatable but also unapproachable, at the age of 43. By 47, the age at which Petty got his 200th victory, Gordon could have 242.

Would he race 20 more years? "If I have years like I've had this year, I'll race as long as I possibly can," he said after Sunday's race, which ended under the lights, nearly 10 hours after it began. "I don't put an age or a number on it. It has to do with being competitive and being in good enough shape."

After Petty got his 200th win, in 1984, conventional wisdom held that mathematics alone would carve the King's record in stone: 140 of Petty's wins came before 1972, when the NASCAR schedule commonly consisted of 50 to 60 races a year. Many of those were relatively short contests and were held on backwater tracks, and they featured scant competition for the well-financed and well-equipped Petty. In the modern era, with only 30-plus races a year, it seemed certain that there wouldn't be enough events or a team dominant enough to win 200.

Barring serious injury or burnout, Gordon could do it and could also shatter the career record of seven NASCAR season championships shared by Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty was 42 when he won his last title, and Earnhardt was 43.

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1998 in Review: Awards and Untowards  

With the conclusion of the major motor racing seasons, here are SI's awards for achievement, both exemplary and dubious.

Lead Foot Cup
CART driver Paul Tracy, who blew his chance for the $1 million first-place money in the Nov. 1 Marlboro 500 by spinning off California Speedway while leading under caution with three laps left. No other car touched Tracy's. He won $12,500 for finishing 14th.

Mr. Gullibility Cup
Winston Cup team owner Jack Roush, who fell for the charge by an anonymous letter writer that Roush's main competitor—whom Roush presumed to be the Gordon team—was using an illegal and undetectable tire-softening substance that enabled their car to grip the track better. Independent lab analysis showed Gordon's tires met regulations, and tire engineers said no undetectable softening product exists.

Elmer Gantry Prize
Winston Cup team owners who publicly decry the folly of restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega while privately refusing to spend R and D money on alternative methods for holding down speeds at the two giant tracks.

Elvis Presley Charisma Award
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who burst onto the NASCAR scene by winning seven Busch Series races and attracted such a following that sales of his licensed merchandise began to rival that of the king of cash-and-carry at the souvenir trailers—his father.

Crew Chief of the Year
Hendrick Motorsports' Ray Evernham, for supervising the meticulous preparation of Gordon's cars, for making terrific decisions on pit stops in the heat of battle and for keeping the sometimes temperamental Gordon calm during races.

Best Driver Who Didn't Win a Driving Championship
Mark Martin, for winning eight Winston Cup races, finishing second to Gordon a heartbreaking four times and pressing on while grieving over his father's death in a plane crash in August.

Driver of the Year
Mika Hakkinen, who won the F/1 title in the best tradition of Rudyard Kipling—he trusted himself when all other men doubted him. Despite wide speculation that he would lose his points lead down the stretch to two-time F/1 champ Michael Schumacher, Hakkinen brilliantly held off Schumacher to win the Luxembourg Grand Prix on Sept. 27 and gain a four-point cushion in the drivers' standings heading into the season finale in Suzuka, Japan, five weeks later. Hakkinen also won that race to emerge triumphant on a circuit on which the pressure is far greater than either Winston Cup champ Gordon or CART titlist Alex Zanardi faced in winning their respective crowns.

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Issue date: November 16, 1998


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