Indian Summer

(September 2, 2002)- - As late summer begins to turn into early fall, Jeff Gordon has found a hot streak. He won at Bristol last weekend in dramatic fashion and followed that up at Darlington with back to back victories. In the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Gordon led the most laps en route to his second consecutive victory and 60th of his career. It was also his fifth Southern 500 win and sixth career win at the historic 1.36-mile track.

The race began under a green/yellow start after rain postponed the start nearly two hours. Gordon started third based on car owner points. Racing began on lap 19 as the green flag waved. Gordon battled a tight handling car and slipped back to fourth on lap 27 as Bill Elliott passed. Four laps later he fell to fifth when Jimmie Johnson went by. By lap 50 he had dropped to 11th. Green flag pit stops occurred on lap 72 with Gordon gaining three spots on the exchange to move up to ninth by lap 75 and eighth on lap 80.

The second caution (since the race started under caution) came out on lap 106 for debris on the track. Gordon held onto the eighth position off pit road but moved up to sixth shortly after the restart. The next caution came out on lap 155 for Todd Bodine's spin off turn four. Gordon went low on the apron of the track to avoid Bodine's spinning Ford. After pit stops he moved up to fifth in the running order.

On lap 161 he passed Ricky Craven to take over the fourth position and passed Dale Jarrett for third on lap 167. John Andretti blew his engine going into turn one on lap 190. He spun in his own oil and hit the wall. Kevin Harvick, Mike Skinner, Steve Park, and Jerry Nadeau all made contact with the wall after getting into the oil from Andretti's car. Pit stops soon followed and Gordon came onto pit road in third. He left in 11th place after one of the lug nuts on the left front tire jammed in the air gun.

Though he lost eight spots on pit road, Gordon would not be deterred. He passed Tony Stewart for 10th on lap 202. Four laps later he passed Jeff Burton and Craven to move up to eighth before the caution waved for oil in turn two. On the restart he got around Bill Elliott for seventh place and took sixth from Bobby Labonte on lap 212. Matt Kenseth cut a tire and hit the wall on lap 235 to bring out the caution flag. Gordon came onto pit road in sixth place but left in third after a 14.2 second four tire change.

On the restart on lap 239 he passed Ryan Newman to take the runner-up spot and began to close in on leader Sterling Marlin. Gordon got a strong run off turn two on lap 240 and took the lead from Marlin on the backstretch. One lap later the caution waved for Jerry Nadeau's spin in turn two. Gordon got a great restart and pulled away from Newman and Marlin. The final round of pit stops were made under the green flag on lap 302. The DuPont team turned a 15.1 second four tire change to keep Gordon at the front of the field. One lap later the caution waved for Jimmie Johnson's cut tire. Johnson was able to stay on the lead lap despite having a flat left rear tire. He would later rally to post a top ten finish on a day that could have been much worse.

Gordon pulled away from Newman on the restart with 59 laps remaining but his advantage would shrink once again as the caution waved on lap 314 for Joe Nemechek's cut tire. The final restart came with 45 laps remaining. Gordon pulled away from Newman and raced out to a nearly two second lead. He skillfully worked his way around lapped traffic for the remainder of the event to claim the victory.

"What an awesome team," Gordon said in victory lane. "We got a little bit behind one time. The car wasn't perfect in the beginning and it was real tight. In traffic I was awful. On new tires I was unreal. I just blew by those guys on new tires. I just had to keep the thing in clean air. We had a good car all day, but we were real tight in traffic. Robbie Loomis mentioned something about getting into clean air and the guys busted off a great pit stop there and got me up to third. The car was just unreal on new tires. When the pressures were down, we could just really smoke around the bottom of the racetrack. I got by Ryan Newman and got up there next to Sterling Marlin. I couldn't believe I was passing them because I saw how strong he was all day. And then I just checked out from them. I thought I was using up the equipment too much, but the car was just awesome all day. These guys made great adjustments. Once you got in clean air, it was just adieus. On that last set of tires, Robbie Loomis made a little bit of an adjustment and made it even better."

Jeff Gordon has accomplished a lot in his whirlwind 10-year Winston Cup career. Four Winston Cup titles, two Daytona 500 wins, three Brickyard 400 victories, three wins in The Winston, and the most wins of any NASCAR driver in history on road courses. His fifth victory in the Southern 500 tied him with Cale Yarborough for the most all-time in the race. He's won six races at Darlington-- more than he has on any other track. Five Southern 500 wins and six wins at Darlington.... a track that requires just the right mixture of finesse, aggressiveness, and patience. A place where drivers have to race the racetrack more than the other competitors. A place that can be considered NASCAR's most difficult track. A place that suits Jeff Gordon's driving style perfectly. A place where Jeff Gordon truly is the master of the house.

Jeff's Post-Race Press Conference

What was wrong with the car at the start?
JG: That's what happens when it rains. The track changes a lot throughout the day and it just kept coming to us and coming to us. I was just so tight. I couldn't even drive in the corner. I couldn't even get on the brakes or anything. I just had to let off real early because the front of the car just wanted to go straight in the wall. Once we got that thing freed up, it just started coming to life. It took a while, because it still wasn't perfect in traffic. But once we could see those guys and get a whiff of them, it was just watch out.

Thoughts on winning five Southern 500 events
JG: That's awesome. It's just incredible. This is just such an historic racetrack. It's just a special day for us. We couldn't believe we were in victory lane last week and here we are here again today.

On moving up to second in the points standings
JG: We're gaining on it. It's not easy to gain on Sterling Marlin. They run good at a lot of different tracks. We're doing all we can do. We're leading laps and fighting hard. Two wins, back-to-back, is going to do a world of good for us. I can't wait to go to Richmond.

Six career wins at Darlington, the latest being his 60th WC victory
JG: As overwhelming as these eight days have been, Darlington has been an awesome place for us. Throughout the years of us winning here, I've learned more and more about the history and the prestige and the list of names that have won-- especially like Cale Yarborough. Anytime you ever saw an old race here, Cale was just wearing them out. To do something that ties him for a record at a place like this where he was so good, is just incredible. Before winning Bristol, I knew we had won 58 times, but I wondered how in the world how we won 58 times when we couldn't even win one race. And now we've won back to back. So now I understand a little bit more how we did that. The Southern 500 is very special.

What's the reason for your success at Darlington?
JG: It's like any other place where you have the right combination. The guys have always given me good cars. We normally qualify well here. Starting up front today certainly helped. Robbie Loomis and I communicated real well and made perfect adjustments-- especially that last one. I like Darlington. I like the two ends of the race track. I've done a pretty good job of staying out of the wall here. It's not easy to do. It's funny because it's changed over the years. The cars have changed. When I first came here, the tires went away in three laps. You just held on real tight and had to be real smooth. The smooth guy was usually the guy who rose to the occasion. But today, I was as aggressive as I could possibly get. We were so good on new tires. When they dropped that green flag and when I got the lead-- when I was sitting in third and passed those two guys-- I was just hammering that thing as hard as I could. I certainly wore the tires out in the long run. There at the end I had to be careful.

Is your slump over, or do you have another step to go when you get to the bigger tracks?
JG: We won't know for a couple of weeks. I'm looking forward to going to Richmond. This really is a handling race track. If you knew the springs and shocks we have underneath this car compared to 1.5-mile race tracks that are smooth and not as abrasive, they're quite a bit different when it comes to how soft we can run the car and look for mechanical grip. Darlington is still a place that calls upon that and I felt good about coming in here. We're working real hard for Kansas City and places like that right now. We're doing some things in the wind tunnel and these guys are just working their tails off to get our aero package better at these bigger tracks. We've just got too much momentum and too many great things going on. We've got these guys thinking about us for the championship. We've moved up to second. We've got to keep the ball rolling. Last year, we had a fire in our eye when we were going to that championship, and we lost a little bit of that for a little while, but we kept the faith in one another. Now, not only that, but we have the fire back. That's pretty cool. It's awesome to go to the race track when you've got that in your eye and you see it in the other guys.

Are you now the driver to beat?
JG: We've done everything to be a threat for the championship except perform real well in certain places and take advantage of the tracks that we had run real well at. We just hadn't gotten the wins. When we were here last time, we had a top five car. We got caught up in a wreck. All these places where we probably shoulda-coulda had wins, we didn't. For whatever reason, the last two weeks it's happened for us. When you look at what it takes to win a championship - finishing races, finishing on the lead lap, and being consistent - we've been all those things. This to me legitimizes our threat for the championship and legitimizes us in the garage area with the other competitors. That doesn't mean they're just going to stand down. We've still got a lot of work to do. We're still the same team we were two or three weeks ago, but now we've got a little more confidence, momentum, and fire in our eye.

Did you scrape the wall today?
JG: I did touch the wall in the middle of the corner one time. It wasn't much. I don't even think I lost any time. I just slid in there a little too hard. My guys put some nice door bars over there. They don't stick the body out any more, but they stay against the body to not let it collapse and flatten the side so you have to come in and pull the fenders away. For me, my car worked better without going all the way to the wall. In the past here, I had to get right up next to the wall. That was my fastest line around here. Today, for some reason, if I got up there the car really wanted to push and it would get the front end over to the wall-- mainly in turns three and four. I think I got a couple of little tire marks from racing with some guys, but it's a pretty clean car for racing at Darlington.

Do you enjoy the role of trying to chase somebody down from behind in the points standings-- being the hunter?
JG: Absolutely. I love that. You've got nothing to lose. There are advantages to both sides. You've got the points lead, you start to conserve and protect and it puts you in a different mindset. When you're the team that needs points and needs to win, you go for broke. You take risks. That can either pay off or bite you. Right now, we're enjoying the role we're in. We're happy to be a threat at all.

When you passed Sterling Marlin, was it almost more of a psychological move?
JG: I wasn't thinking about that at the time. I was just thinking that he was the guy leading the points and that you certainly didn't need for him to win today. I knew it was going to be hard to gain many points on him anyway because he had a good car. At the beginning of the race, the car was just so tight. By the end of the race, it seemed like the track came back to the way it was yesterday in practice. We were really good in practice. We freed it up and got better and the guys did great pit stops. Robbie made some good calls. But we were good on new tires all day. I'm usually horrible on good tires and good on old tires here at Darlington. My guys got me out third on that one stop. They dropped the green and I got a great re-start. All three of us did, really Marlin, Newman, & Gordon. Newman poked his nose inside Sterling and my car stuck so good on the bottom that I just drove in there underneath him. I drove down into turn three, behind Sterling, and I thought, 'Wow. This thing is incredible on new tires.' I hadn't been around Sterling all day, so I didn't know how good he was on new tires. But I wanted the five bonus points and I wanted to get the lead and get it out in clean air. I got a run off turn two and got by him. I really was afraid that as hard as I was running that I would wear out everything and he'd just come back and blow by me. But it just kept on going. Once I got out in clean air, I realized why he had been out there all day leading. What a difference it made to be in clean air.

How much of an advantage is it that you have won four Winston Cup titles and Sterling Marlin is still trying for his first?
JG: There is definitely some advantage because we have a team of people that have been there and seen a lot. I have too. I think it makes a difference. But Sterling has a strong team right now. That's why they've been leading the points. When you come to Darlington and run well and lead that many laps and come home with a top five, it tells you a lot about your team. But we're certainly going to try to make them think about some of their decisions and choices right now. We need to put pressure on these guys. We haven't been putting any pressure on them. Nobody has. We'd certainly like to do it and I hope we can keep some things going our way and put some pressure on them. They're going to be in it all the way to the end. I don't see them buckling under the pressure or anything like that because they haven't won a championship. It's just really all about getting the cars working and the pit stops - it's all about the chemistry of the whole team. Right now, our chemistry is extremely high. In that sense, maybe we have a little bit of an advantage on them right now.

Crew chief Robbie Loomis also met with the media

What adjustments did you make in the second half of the race?
RL: The car was really good in yesterday's practice. We started the race and I guess with all the rain, the track changed quite a bit. We fell back. But Jeff has the ability to tell us exactly what he needs in a race car. We were kind of hit and miss with it the first half of the race. And then we started making the right adjustments and feeling some things that Jeff really liked. We went more and more in that direction and got us where we needed to be.

Can you describe Jeff's demeanor during the frustrating times?
RL: We all know what a winner is and he's the one all along who kept us calm. A lot of drivers have asked me what the difference is between Jeff Gordon and other drivers. I think that having won four championships, Jeff has confidence that runs way deep. Myself, and a lot of guys on the team, don't have that confidence that runs that deep. But Jeff tells us everything is going to be okay and to believe in one another and keep working together. We had a little trouble today with a lug nut on one of the guns and he went from like third to 11th. He got on the radio and he gave the guys the confidence and said to just gather it up and get right for the next one. The next stop, I think we went from eighth to third. He's under total control when he keeps us calm that we can think about the things we need to do. When he panics, I'm upside down myself.

In a championship battle, does the momentum carry itself?
RL: The momentum definitely goes along way. Jeff taught us this last year when we had our pit road accident in Charlotte. When things are going good for you, it's real easy to get over-confident and just expect it to happen. Now, we were so beat up before Bristol, getting that win and now this one here at Darlington, it put us at a level where we need to be. I think we can finish out the year strong believing in one another.

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