Like Old Times
Jeff Gordon made a daring pass at Talladega to snap his winless streak
Heading into the DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, Jeff Gordon hadn't won a race in six months. It was difficult to tell who was more troubled by that: Gordon; his new crew chief, Robbie Loomis; his fans; or the countless NASCAR aficionados for whom rooting against him is a passion. Sure, there were a few anti-Gordon banners at Talladega, but they were nowhere near as prevalent—nor as mean-spirited—as they were in the glory days, when every week the smart money was on the number 24 car. Between February 1995 and October '99, Gordon won 47 races, or 30% of his starts. "Everybody likes a winner, but nobody likes someone who wins too much," says Gordon. "When I first heard the boos, I said, 'I don't blame 'em.' "
Lately, though, rooting against Gordon has been like rooting against the Chicago Cubs. In the first seven races of this season he finished no better than eighth, and three times he wound up 25th or worse. His only top five showing was two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, where he finished fourth. "Hell no, it ain't the same," said one disappointed Gordon baiter at Talladega last Saturday. However, 24 hours later everyone was happy after Gordon showed that he's not washed up at 28, by winning with a dazzling late pass.
The victory got King Kong-sized monkeys off the backs of Gordon and Loomis. The beginning of Gordon's decline had coincided with the departure last September of brilliant crew chief Ray Evernham, who left Gordon's garage to spearhead Dodge's fledgling NASCAR program. After the 1999 season Evernham's interim replacement, Brian White-sell, was bumped up to team manager, and Gordon and owner Rick Hendrick searched for someone to fill Evernham's shoes. "People don't realize how hard it was to find somebody," says Gordon. "We wanted Brian to be a chief aspect of this team and bring in another person to work with him. A lot of guys were afraid of that. They were like, 'It's too much pressure.' Robbie wanted it."
Gordon and Loomis, who had worked for Richard Petty as crew chief of John Andretti's car, knew each other mostly by reputation. ("Anybody the King respects, I respect," says Gordon.) Even though they hit it off when they met, it took a while for the two to learn to read each other. "I knew with Jeff and Ray that there wasn't any magic or anything," Loomis says. "It was a case of them communicating well and Ray's being able to get inside Jeff's head. The hardest things about the driver-crew chief relationship are those that aren't said. When he says the car's loose, I've got to figure out how loose."
While Gordon and Loomis got used to each other, the team struggled on the track. Skeptics had a field day, crowing that the sole reason the number 24 car had ever won was Evernham. But on Sunday it was just like old times. Gordon took the lead for the fifth time on Lap 159 of 188, only to commit the cardinal sin of restrictor-plate racing three laps later. Mark Martin passed him, and instead of falling back in line, Gordon let his Chevy get caught outside the draft. A train of cars swept past him, and with 18 laps left he had fallen to ninth. But he worked his way back up to third, and when Jeremy Mayfield tried to pass Martin on the high side with six laps to go, Gordon ducked beneath both of them. He then held off a hard-charging Mike Skinner for his 50th career win.
That was good news for Gordon lovers and haters alike.
Tracy Surges At Long Beach
Gordon, who started 36th at Talladega, wasn't the only driver to come from the back of the field and win last weekend. Paul Tracy won CARTs Grand Prix of Long Beach from the 17th spot. The victory bodes well for Tracy: Only once in the last six years has the Long Beach winner failed to also take the points championship....
Because he got caught in a 17-car wreck at Talladega, Michael Waltrip completed only 148 laps. No problem. That enabled him to catch an earlier flight to Boston, where on Monday he competed in his first marathon. "I'm not sure where I'm starting," he said on Sunday. "My tag number is 17398, so that can't be real close to the front If you think starting 36th in a [Winston Cup] race is bad, try starting 17,398th." Waltrip met his modest expectations—"I hope I finish around 16,000th or so," he had said—when he crossed the finish line 14,315th, in 4:42:20.