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One-Third Of The Rainbow


HARRISBURG, N.C.- - Nearly one-third of the Winston Cup season has already been run. Technically, the one-third mark won't be reached until Charlotte. However since this was an off week, I was able to finish this ahead of time.

It seems like yesterday that Jeff Gordon was celebrating in victory lane at Daytona; but in the same breath it also seems like that was a lifetime ago. The 1999 season has not been the smoothest for the three-time Winston Cup champion. Already, he has failed to finish more races in 1999 than he did in the entire 1998 season. The result has been a more competitive points race as upstarts such as Jeff Burton have found the consistency to match Gordon's visits to victory lane.

Rocky Road

The Daytona victory seemed to be a carryover effect from the 1998 Winston Cup championship season. The DuPont team had a strong test a Daytona in January and ran a flawless race, save for a risky pass on Rusty Wallace with 11 laps remaining. However, the dawn of the new season soon brought a dose of reality at Rockingham. For the first time since the spring of 1997, Gordon suffered an engine failure. Randy Dorton engines are usually bulletproof; the Rockingham motor was simply a grenade.

Making Moves

After the disappointment of Rockingham, the team headed west to Las Vegas. Gordon debuted the #24 Pepsi Chevrolet in the Busch event and finished a distant fourth in the team's debut. In the Winston Cup event, Gordon finished third to Jeff Burton. Since 1997, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin have been the major competition for Gordon in terms of the points standings. At Las Vegas, Jeff Burton's name was added to that list. Following Las Vegas, Gordon won at Atlanta. It was his second consecutive victory at the track. At Darlington, Gordon was running second to Burton when rain began falling. The ensuing melee resulted in damage to the right front of both Burton and Gordon's cars. The cancellation of the remainder of the event saved the DuPont team. In the next event, they wouldn't be so lucky.

Tearin' It Up

Those that remember Gordon's rookie season in Winston Cup racing can recall that he tore up a number of race cars. Some were his own fault, and some were simply bad luck. While leading the Winston Open in 1993, Gordon "lost it" in turn three and wrecked on his own. He's come a long way since then. The late March-late April period of 1999 saw Gordon tear up more sheet metal than he has in some time. It started deep in the heart of Texas during the Primestar 500. While running second, the right front tire blew as he was exiting turn four. The result was hard contact with the turn four wall and a 43rd place finish. In addition to the poor finish, the driver suffered his first racing-related injury in quite some time with sore ribs.

Determination

At Bristol, Gordon went through the "spin cycle" once again. After hitting the rear of Robert Pressley's car during a melee, Gordon spun down to the apron of the track. With the hood of the car pushed up and heavy damage on the front end, the crew made repairs on pit road while keeping Gordon on the lead lap. It wasn't pretty, but Gordon drove the taped-Chevrolet to a 6th place finish, passing several drivers in the final 40 laps. At Martinsville, Burton and Gordon battled for the win late in the race, but eventually both were overtaken by John Andretti. Once again, Burton finished ahead of Gordon.

Oysters and Pearls

In racing it is often said that a driver makes their own luck. On lap 49 of the Diehard 500 at Talladega, Mike Skinner and Tony Stewart made contact as they raced down the backstretch. Skinner spun toward the center of the backstretch as cars weaved to avoid him. While trying to avoid Skinner, Jeff Gordon overcorrected and found himself heading sideways staring at a 190 mile per hour head-on impact with the backstretch wall. Rusty Wallace, running wide open, slammed into the right side of Gordon's car. The DuPont Chevrolet then slammed the wall on the drivers side before spinning across the track. Remarkably, Gordon was able to start the car and drive to the garage area where the crew made lengthy repairs. The mark of a championship team is strength in the face of adversity. After a poor finish at Talladega, Gordon arrived in California on a mission. He was fastest in the practice sessions at California Speedway and led 148 of the 250 laps en route to his third victory of the year in the California 500. He arrived at the "May break" fourth in the points standings, 200 points behind Jeff Burton.

State of the Rainbow

As evidenced by the remarkable repair job at Talladega and the astounding 15.9 second pit stop at California, the DuPont team is at its strongest. It would be easy to look at their current points standing and consider it a disappointing start. However, Gordon's three victories leads the Winston Cup series. The engine failure at Rockingham, a blown tire at Texas, and a wreck at Talladega have kept the team from opening up a substantial points lead. By the same token, they've also been lucky. Had Gordon slammed into the rear of Robert Pressley's car at Bristol slightly harder, he most likely would have broken the radiator in the car. A situation that would have required substantial repair. At Darlington, the rain showers saved Gordon from a poor finish. With the right front of the car towed out, repairs would have been required had the race restarted. And of course, at Daytona, Rusty Wallace allowing Gordon back onto the track in turn one to avert a disastrous wreck.

Looking Ahead

The second third of the season features stops at tracks where Gordon has had a great deal of success. Charlotte, Dover, Pocono, Michigan, Daytona, and Indianapolis are among the highlights. However, the key to winning a fourth Winston Cup title might be the road courses of Sears Point and Watkins Glen. In 1998, Gordon won both events on the road courses. He took the points lead from Jeremy Mayfield at Sears Point and never looked back. This season, Gordon will likely need to gain points over his competitors in order to be in the hunt for the title when autumn arrives. The big money is on the line at Daytona and Indianapolis this summer, but the Winston Cup title will likely be won, or lost, on the road courses.

Analysis after one-third

It's unfair to grade the team based on the standards set in previous years. The most difficult thing that hockey great Wayne Gretzky experienced later in his career was that his talent was not compared with other players; it was compared to his performance in previous seasons. With that in mind, these grades are a reflection on Gordon's 1999 season. While some are probably too low, and others too high, they tend to reflect 1999 only, and should not be compared to standards set in previous years.

Driver- Jeff Gordon: B+
A championship effort to hold off Dale Earnhardt at Daytona among the highlights. Overcorrecting at Talladega among the lowlights. Leads Winston Cup racing in victories, but only sits 4th in points. Week to week consistency is vital the rest of the way.

Crew Chief- Ray Evernham: A-
He said before the season started that the efforts of the Gordon-Evernham Motorsports Busch Grand National team would provide a distraction; though it seems that distraction has been positive for the workaholic crew chief. In addition, he recently opened a driving school in California with Frank Hawley. Distractions can be good; they broaden horizons.

Pit Crew- Rainbow Warriors: A
Shane Parsnow departs, Kevin Gillman steps in, and the pit stops just keep getting better. At California, Gordon came in for his final pit stop leading by 2 seconds. He went out leading by 5 seconds after the Rainbow Warriors turned a 15.9 second four-tire change. When the pressure's on, nobody is better.

Engines- Randy Dorton/Charlie Siegars: A-
They haven't been lacking for horsepower, that's for sure. A pole winning run at Daytona was followed up by a victory. The only trouble spot was Rockingham. In the grand scheme of things, no big deal. The motor program has been strong all season.

Chassis- Ed Guzzo, Ray Evernham, Brian Whitesell: A-
At times the setups have been dominant, at other times, they've been fighting to keep up. At a few tracks, they were a little off late in the events. Las Vegas and Martinsville come to mind. Races where Gordon led, but wasn't as strong at the finish. But, more times than not, Gordon has a strong car. He didn't get to show that too much at Texas, Darlington, and Talladega, but they were hooked up. Another stellar season for the car setups.

Intangibles- Ownership, R&D, Leadership: A
It would have been great if car owner Rick Hendrick had been able to visit victory lane with Jeff Gordon after the Daytona 500. The effects of battling leukemia are still an issue for Hendrick. His travel schedule was cut down after Daytona. Nevertheless it's safe to say that he'll visit victory lane with Jeff Gordon sometime this season. In terms of new innovations, the R&D Department at Hendrick Motorsports continues to lead the way. With the development of the 2000 Monte Carlo complete, the organization continues to focus on improving the existing product. While other Chevrolet teams continue to search for the secrets of drag, Hendrick Motorsports is one step ahead. Want proof? It's been tested.... in the form of wind tunnels.
The DuPont team is not lacking in the leadership department. In the past, it was Evernham's team to lead; it's safe to say that Evernham is still the leader, however as the same core group (Gordon, Evernham, Guzzo, Whitesell) has worked together since 1993, they don't need to look to Evernham for the leadership once deemed necessary. Instead, they can look inside themselves to find leadership when the need arises. The mark of a great leader is the ability to pull back on the reigns and still have the team remain on top.

Outlook

Greater consistency is needed in the second third of the season. In addition, Gordon might need to make up some points on the road courses. He doesn't have to win every week, but he needs to run consistent in order to get back into the points hunt. Taking advantage when other drivers stumble has been a trademark of previous championship seasons. Last year at Darlington, Gordon took a tenuous lead in the points into the Southern 500. After Mark Martin's engine blew, Gordon won the race. That's taking advantage... big time. Jeff Burton and the other drivers ahead of him in the points standings will stumble sometime this season. A fourth title will depend on whether Gordon takes advantage when the opportunity arises.



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