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Motor Sports
Mark Bechtel
September 09, 2002
Fixin' to RollIts confidence restored, Jeff Gordon's crew is aiming the 24 juggernaut at the points title
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September 09, 2002

Motor Sports

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Famine to Feast

Should Jeff Gordon win the points race, his season-opening 23-race winless streak would be the longest by far by an eventual champion. Here are the longest roads to Victory Lane by a Cup titlist.

DRIVER

YEAR

WINLESS STREAK

Terry Labonte

1984

12

Dale Jarrett

1999

10

Darrell Waltrip

1985

10

Terry Labonte

1996

6

Fixin' to Roll
Its confidence restored, Jeff Gordon's crew is aiming the 24 juggernaut at the points title

As Jeff Gordon emerged from his car in Victory Lane on Sunday at Darlington Raceway, he surveyed his raucous crew and proclaimed, "These guys have come alive." Gordon's second straight win, on the heels of a 31-race winless streak, couldn't have come at a better time. There are three factors in the racing equation: the driver, the car and luck. No one on Gordon's team thought he had forgotten which pedal was the accelerator and which the brake, and you can write off only so many eighth-place finishes to bad luck. That left the car—and crew—as the culprits. "You start questioning yourself," says Jay Wiles, Gordon's engine tuner. "If you've got Jeff Gordon driving your car and you're not getting it done, you know it's not his fault."

The one person who kept the 24 team from getting too far down on itself was Gordon, who exudes a calm that can be contagious. That composure, says crew chief Robbie Loomis, is what he cites when rival drivers ask what separates Gordon from them. "He's the one who kept us calm," says Loomis. "He's got confidence that runs way deep, and I and a lot of guys on the team don't have that."

That Gordon is in the hunt for his fifth Winston Cup title-he's 91 points behind leader Sterling Marlin after winning his fifth Southern 500—is a testament to his scrappiness. Gordon has fared poorly this year at tracks that were once points mines. For instance, he won six of eight road-course races from 1998 to 2001, yet this year he was 37th at Sonoma and 22nd at Watkins Glen. By contrast, when he broke his winless streak two weeks ago, he did so in one of the few events he hadn't won, the Bristol night race.

The points race might come down to the season's final day, which hasn't happened since 1997. Betting against Gordon in that scenario is a bad idea. "He's always the man to beat," says Bill Elliott. "Jeff's coming up on a good stretch, and that team is really strong. If they don't have bad luck, they'll be hard to beat."

Hideo Fukuyama
Japanese Driver In Winston Cup?

In 1996, when NASCAR ran the first of three exhibition races in Japan, owner Travis Carter was looking for someone to drive his Camel-sponsored car. He picked the perfect guy: Hideo Fukuyama is as popular in Japan as Richard Petty is in the U.S., and he bears, by his own admission, a striking resemblance to Joe Camel. Against a field full of Winston Cup regulars, such as Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace, Fukuyama ran in the top 10 until he wrecked late.

Fukuyama made a lasting impression on Carter. Sources have told SI that the owner will put Fukuyama, 47, behind the wheel of a Winston Cup car at Dover on Sept. 22 and in two subsequent races, likely at Martinsville and Rockingham. A sports car driver who won his class at the last two 24 Hours of Le Mans races, Fukuyama tested the Dover oval-dubbed the Monster Mile—on Aug. 27. "I want to forget about it," says a laughing Fukuyama. Still, the three-race deal could turn into a full-time ride next year.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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