HARRISBURG, N.C.- - At the midpoint of the 1998 season, it's time to look back at the first half. While Jeff Gordon won four races and leads the points standings, there is room for improvement. Since Gordon leads the Winston Cup points standings, the grades are high all around for the #24 team. But, consistency and focus must remain, in addition to a strong October and November, in order for Gordon to capture his third Winston Cup title.
Jeff Gordon- Driver
Gordon has shown more patience on the track this season than in years past. Rather than make a daring move on the track too early in a race, he'll wait for the next pit stop so that the crew can make adjustments. It usually produces great results in the second half of races. The victory at Bristol and the victory at Charlotte are two examples of that. He's a better communicator at this point in his career than he was when he started. At Rockingham in February, the car wasn't right at the start of the race. However, constant communication between Gordon and the crew allowed them to work on making it better each pit stop. The result was a victory. The only negative were a few lackluster qualifying efforts in March and April. A 17th place starting spot at Texas put him in the middle of a lap 2 wreck. However, qualifying has improved greatly as of late. His victory on the road course at Sears Point was an exercise in patience. In the second half, minimizing distractions will a key to success. Potential off track distractions include his new Busch Grand National team and some "Hollywood" stuff. However, on the race track Gordon is usually unflappable. He may not win ten races this year, but he's in the hunt every week, is currently leading the points standings, and still getting booed. That's the mark of a good season; that's all you can ask for.
Ray Evernham- Crew Chief
While Ray Evernham finds his team on top of the points standings, it hasn't been the smoothest half season for the crew chief of the #24 car. After four races, the team looked like a picture of mediocrity. A 16th place finish at Daytona, a brief respite with a win at Rockingham, followed by finishes outside of the top 15 at Las Vegas and Atlanta. However, after a few rules changes were announced, Gordon made his way back to the top. A gaffe in the non-points Winston Select at Charlotte left the crew chief with "egg on his face" but, showing the mark of a champion, rebounded the following week with a victory in the Coke 600.
The Pit Crew- Rainbow Warriors
The quick pit stops have allowed Jeff Gordon to win a race or two that he probably shouldn't have won. At Bristol in April, he came into the pits for the final pit stop of the day trailing. He beat Terry Labonte out of the pits and went on to the victory. Coached by Andy Papathanassiou, the Warriors are considered by many to be the top pit crew in Winston Cup racing.
John Hendrick- Team Owner
John Hendrick took over as the CEO of Hendrick Motorsports before the season. Though he considered himself a NASCAR novice before the season started, John has made his presence at the race track. Whether questioning a NASCAR official at the Winston or just talking to the team, John has taken over for his brother, Rick, without the team missing a beat.
Randy Dorton/Charlie Siegers- Engines
The engines built by Randy Dorton and Charlie Siegers have been flawless this season. With the exception of a dropped cylinder in the closing laps at Daytona, horsepower has never been a problem. Though, at times, better gas mileage would have been welcomed. In June at Dover, Jeff led 375 of the 400 laps but needed a stop for gas a few laps from the end. Dale Jarrett got better gas mileage and won the race that day. But, that's the horsepower-gas mileage tradeoff at work.
The DuPont Team- Race Shop
In terms of chassis design, Hendrick Motorsports still leads the way in NASCAR racing. The R&D shop is always working on new designs. The season got off to a slow start chassis-wise because of the new NASCAR rules designed to make the T-Rex chassis obsolete. Las Vegas was a major stuggle all day long. Jeff finished off the pace, 2 laps down. As a result, the team was forced to use 1997 chassis' while new ones were built. However, the team rolls off the truck fast on Fridays and that's half the battle right there.
The DuPont team is a proven championship team. From the engineering department back in Harrisburg, North Carolina to the driver in the car on race weekends, they're all proven champions. Down the stretch, the championship experience should come into play; they won't panic under pressure.
While seemingly not as dominant as 1997, the team is leading the points standings. While Gordon currently has four wins, he could easily have five or six. Of course, we all know what happened in the closing laps at Richmond that does not need to be rehashed. And who knows what would have happened at Daytona had Jeff not dropped a cylinder while running second to Dale Earnhardt in the closing laps. But, overall, it was a solid first half. The key to the second half will be consistency and focus. After the Daytona 500, the top three in points in 1997 were nowhere near the top. Gordon finished 16th while Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett were even further back. However, at the midpoint of the year, Gordon, Martin, and Jarrett make up the top three in points. See how the cream rises to the top? Jeff recently said that the team is focusing on the last third of the season; the final five races that have been up and down over the years for him. He currently has 33 victories, but has yet to win a race in October or November. To win the Winston Cup title this season, he might need to change that.
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