Jeff Gordon wanted to win the Winston Cup championship with a bang, not a whimper. He wanted to close out the racing season with a victory in the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, not with the 17th-place finish that sealed the title for him by a mere 14 points over Dale Jarrett. But after surviving what could have been the worst episode of choking ever seen at a NASCAR season finale, Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates were happy to have won the championship at all—and promised to do a better job of clinching it the next time.
Make no mistake, there will be a next time for the 26-year-old Gordon. "He's done it before," said NAPA 500 winner Bobby Labonte on Sunday, referring to the fact that this was Gordon's second season title in three years. "And I'm sure he'll do it again. His team is awesome."
Not in Atlanta. During morning practice before last Saturday's qualifying, Gordon made what he called a "bonehead" mistake, and at the time he seemed to be flattering himself. Heading down pit road at just 40 mph, Gordon swerved his Chevrolet Monte Carlo left and right to warm up his tires. He lost control of the car, spun 180 degrees and slammed into Bobby Hamilton's parked Pontiac Grand Prix. Gordon's Chew was so badly damaged that he had to use a backup that wasn't nearly as tailored to the 1.54-mile Atlanta track as the car he had wrecked. Hamilton also had to use a backup and qualified 40th but finished seventh in the race. "I was pretty upset with myself," Gordon said the next day. "it wasn't a difficult thing to do because the pit road was slippery and the tires were new."
Other members of Gordon's team must have felt their throats constricting. While hurriedly switching their best qualifying engine from the wrecked car to the backup, Gordon's mechanics overfilled the oil-cooler tank. So when Gordon drove off to qualify, excess oil sprayed from his exhaust pipes onto the track. His rear tires slipped in the oil, causing him to swerve. He backed off the gas to recover, and that slight hesitation was just enough to spoil his lap time. Gordon was relegated to the 37th starting position in the 43-car field. Though he was clocked at 190.673 mph, which was 4 mph faster than the track record before the Atlanta Motor Speedway was reconfigured and repaved last summer, everybody else who qualified also exceeded the mark. Geoff Bodine qualified first at 197.478, the fastest pole speed for a NASCAR race this season.
Gordon, who went into the race leading Jarrett by 77 points and Mark Martin by 87, needed only to finish 18th or better in Atlanta to win the championship. But with so little practice time on a track that was so much faster than when they had last run on it, most teams feared massive pileups early in the race—and Gordon, starting so near the back of the field, was in position to be caught up in such a mishap. Suddenly, finishing 18th didn't look so easy.
Gordon conceded on Sunday night that he'd been fibbing to the media all week. "I said I'd been sleeping well," he said, "but I haven't slept in two weeks." That meant he had been tossing and turning since he failed to clinch the title at the Dura-Lube 500 in Phoenix on Nov. 2. Gordon finished 17th in that race while Jarrett won it to pull within shooting range of the championship.
By sunset last Saturday, even Ray Evernham, Gordon's usually unflappable crew chief, was in a bad way. "I was falling apart," he would say after the race. "When something is beyond your control, you can handle it without pressure. But when your wounds are self-inflicted, you can't blame it on luck."
Weighing worse on the team members' minds was a recent history of folding down the stretch. In 1995 Gordon blew most of a 302-point lead over the final four races of the season but held off Dale Earnhardt to win the title by 34 points. Last year Gordon coughed up a 111-point lead in the last four races and lost the crown to teammate Terry Labonte by 37 points.
At 6 a.m. on Sunday, Jarrett's crew chief, Todd Parrott, heard something that brightened his outlook on the race. "As Ray Evernham and I walked through the garage gates," said Parrott, "Ray told me, 'Today, our team has to race for 15th place.' "
That was the opening Jarrett and Parrott had been hoping for. If the points leaders were gunning only for 15th, they might easily falter and finish worse than 18th. If Jarrett could win the race and lead the most laps for a five-point bonus, he would be the champion.