Despite trailing in the driver standings by 77 points, Dale Jarrett isn't nearly the long shot to overtake Jeff Gordon and win the Winston Cup championship that the deficit suggests. Going into Sunday's season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the momentum and confidence that Jarrett and his team gained in the last few weeks have turned an apparent runaway by Gordon into a sprint for the title.
If Gordon, 26, finishes 18th or better at Atlanta, he will clinch his second championship in three years. "I wish it was as easy as it sounds," says Gordon, whose 17th-place finish in the Dura-Lube 500K at Phoenix on Nov. 2 left the door open for his closest challengers. Even if Gordon places as low as 29th, Jarrett still needs a top five finish to earn enough points to win his first championship. He may do that, considering how he overpowered the field at Phoenix, roaring back from nearly a full lap down to win and pare his deficit by 67 points. Jarrett says he's "not cocky, just confident" that he'll win at Atlanta too.
"I would equate the situation with the 1996 Masters," says Jarrett, 40, a scratch golfer who turned down a college golf scholarship to race. "Going into the final round, Nick Faldo was six shots behind Greg Norman. But Faldo did come from behind. In tournaments I played, I always found it was a lot more difficult to protect a lead than to come from behind. We're going to Atlanta thinking of nothing but leading laps and winning the race. Jeff and his team are trying to make sure they don't make a mistake."
Jarrett's golf analogy is an apt one when you consider Gordon's Normanesque tendency to falter down the stretch. In '95 Gordon led Dale Earnhardt by 302 points with four races left; he won the championship by just 34 points. Last year he lost to Terry Labonte's steady charge over the last six races.
Jarrett won the Primestar 500 at Atlanta in March, and though the track has since been reconfigured to include a dogleg in the front stretch, he also ran well there in October testing. Jarrett plans to drive the same Thunderbird in which he won last month's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Atlanta's sister track, Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It's mathematically possible that Mark Martin, who trails Gordon by 87 points in the standings, could catch him and Jarrett at Atlanta. But even if Martin were to win the race and lead the most laps, he would need Gordon to finish lower than 23rd and Jarrett lower than third.
"We're not the ones with the guns pointed at our heads," Jarrett's crew chief, Todd Parrott, says of Gordon's team. "We're the ones pointing the guns." But don't discount Gordon's ability to dodge bullets. After his Monte Carlo blew a tire at Phoenix, dropping him to 30th place, he made up 13 positions over the last 38 laps in what might have been the gutsiest nonwinning performance of his career. Gordon salvaged 39 precious points, which could turn out to decide the driving championship.
The King's New Prince
Two of racing's household names—Petty and Andretti—are about to join forces. Soon after the NASCAR finale at Atlanta, Richard Petty is expected to sign John Andretti as driver of the legendary number 43 for 1998. That should solve the biggest headache the King has had since he retired from driving five years ago to focus on being a team owner: his drivers' identity crises.
"When you drive for me," says Petty, "no matter what you do, you're always going to be in my shadow." Although Petty won't acknowledge publicly that a deal has been struck with John Andretti, the nephew of Mario and cousin of Michael, he concedes that "John would have a better chance of overcoming the identity problem than Bobby Hamilton." Hamilton has driven for Petty for three years, but after he won the AC-Delco 400 at Rockingham, N.C., last month, Petty still got as much publicity as he did.