Tire-tampering charges didn't slow Jeff Gordon in a win at Darlington
Jeff Burton, the latest driver to dominate a Winston Cup race until Jeff Gordon blew past him near the finish, chuckled with the weakest of smiles in the garage at Darlington Raceway on Sunday. He'd just been asked if he was puzzled at Gordon's extraordinary dominance over the last two months. "Me and 50 other guys," Burton said.
Moments earlier Gordon had breezed to victory in the Southern 500, overtaking Burton with 26 laps to go. The win was Gordon's sixth in seven races and his 10th of the season, and it earned him his second million-dollar race bonus of 1998 and his third in the span of a year.
Moreover, the victory was accomplished against the backdrop of NASCAR officials randomly confiscating tires used by cars in the race and an official shadowing every move of Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham. The reason: an Aug. 30 allegation by a rival owner that the Rainbow Warriors have been chemically treating tires to make them softer for better grip.
The tires seized at Darlington, along with those taken from Gordon after his Aug. 30 victory at Loudon, N.H., are being put through chemical analyses so sophisticated that NASCAR Winston Cup director Gary Nelson calls it "a DNA test for tires." As of Sunday it wasn't known when the results would be revealed.
"In this sport anybody who wins is cheating—whether they are or not—it's an automatic accusation," Richard Petty, NASCAR's alltime winningest driver, said at Darlington, making light of the situation.
The charges against Gordon were leveled by Jack Roush, owner of five Winston Cup teams, after the New Hampshire race, in which Gordon took on only two tires on his final pit stop while most other drivers replaced four. Over the final 67 laps Gordon pulled away from the field, including Roush's best driver, Mark Martin, who had dominated most of the race. Roush contended that a car with only two new tires could not have a grip advantage over cars with four new tires. He revealed that he'd been sent samples of a supposed tire-softening substance by an unnamed distributor, who claimed the softener was undetectable and that "my competition [Gordon] was using it."
According to engineers from a tire manufacturer, chemical tampering of a tire can't go undetected. Even if a mystery substance wore off entirely, it would leave evidence that a chemical reaction had occurred within the compound of the tire.
If Gordon is exonerated of using chemically treated tires, the question will still be asked: What are he and his team doing that makes their car so much better than everybody else's—and is it legal? Team owner Felix Sabates, who fields cars for Sterling Marlin, Joe Nemechek and Jeff Green, offered the least popular but most likely explanation on Sunday: "I think Jeff Gordon is the best stock car driver of all time. I think he's got the best crew of all time."
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