Same As It Ever Was
TALLADEGA, AL. (September 29)- - The rules may change, the competition might vow not to give them help, they might get separated by more than a lap during the day, they might have extended stays on pit road, but Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr continue their mastery of restrictor plate racing. In the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Waltrip used drafting help from Earnhardt Jr to take the lead from Kurt Busch with nine laps remaining. To get into position to help his teammate, Earnhardt Jr overcame a damaged front end after pit road contact early in the race. He lost a lap under green flag conditions but got back on the lead lap when Jimmie Johnson spun on lap 142. Less than 20 laps later, the Budweiser Chevrolet was at the front of the field. As the laps wound down and final pit stops were made, Busch assumed the lead before being overtaken by the DEI twosome. After a lengthy red flag due to Elliott Sadler's wreck with six laps to go, the final restart found Waltrip leading Earnhardt Jr, Ward Burton, and Jeff Gordon. With three laps remaining, Gordon dove low in turn one to pass Burton and brought Ryan Newman up to fourth. The top four remaining in line until the backstretch on the final lap when Gordon pulled to the high line and inched ahead of Earnhardt Jr. In turn four, Waltrip moved high to block Gordon who opened up his inside with the all or nothing move. Kevin Harvick jumped inside of Gordon as Rusty Wallace came up on the high side to give Gordon drafting help. Waltrip went low to keep Earnhardt Jr behind him at the finish line while Tony Stewart and Newman got around Gordon in the tri-oval for position. It was Gordon's second consecutive top-five finish though he remains winless in restrictor plate races since the 2000 season. "We had a strong car all day and led a bunch of laps," said Gordon, who led the lion's share of laps in the middle stages of the event. "Losing Jimmie Johnson out there hurt us a little bit; we had a great drafting partner with him and he and I were working real well together. There at the end we had to come in for fuel and we came in and I saw how far back we were and said, 'should we come and get tires?' I wanted to go up through the middle. I knew that was the way to get back to the front. I didn't know if my car would handle as good as I wanted it to to stay wide open up through there. So we got tires, fell to the back and it didn't look good there for a while. But once we caught the pack we just blew up through there. Those last few laps were pretty exciting. I was apologizing to my team because I let Harvick get to the inside of me in the middle of turns three and four. I put myself in a perfect position. I had a push, got by Junior, and had my sights set on Michael. I had the momentum and he moved up. When I moved up with him, Harvick snuck to the inside of me. I'm going to go for the win. I'm not going to stay there in third. I'm glad that I did, we still ended up with the top-five, and I'm real happy with that." In the last 12 restrictor plate races, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr have combined for nine wins including five consecutive wins at Talladega. The new rules with increased drag allowing for slightly faster lap times seemed to have little effect on the competition and drafting pack. "I just went out and drove my car the best I possibly could," Gordon said. "I didn't see a big difference from before other than you could bump draft a lot more." The largest incident of the day involved six cars on the tenth lap of the race. Jeremy Mayfield cut a tire and the ensuing melee swept up David Green, Larry Foyt, Johnny Benson, Tony Raines, and Jimmy Spencer. A single car spin involving Jimmie Johnson occurred on lap 142. While Johnson was side-by-side with Waltrip for the lead, a bump draft from Earnhardt Jr sent Waltrip into Johnson's Chevrolet. The scariest incident came with six laps to go when Earnhardt Jr made a move to come down from the high line on the backstretch. Sadler, running in the middle, tried to give him room by moving lower on the track. However, Sadler went into Kurt Busch's path sending his car into an end over end romp through the grass and back onto the asphalt in turn three. Another incident occurred after the checkered flag waved when the cars were slowing down which damaged Bobby Labonte and Mark Martin's cars.
What Matters Most
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (September 29)- - Sometimes it's important to just appreciate every single day. And to thank God for the simple things in your life such as health and happiness. Jeff Gordon realizes that he does not face the true challenges in life the way that so many less fortunate do. The establishment of the Jeff Gordon Foundation in December 1999 served to help support the physical, social or intellectual needs of children and their families throughout the United States. Money raised is distributed among several non-profit organizations including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, The Marrow Foundation, Hendrick Marrow Program, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and the Riley Hospital for Children located in Indianapolis. In August, the foundation hosted a celebrity bowling tournament in Indianapolis leading up to the Brickyard 400 bringing together celebrities and fans to raise money for the Riley Hospital for Children. At the end of the event, Gordon presented a check for $100,000 to the hospital. The next big event will be an "Evening with Jeff Gordon" dinner followed by the third annual Jeff Gordon Go-Kart Challenge in Wilmington, North Carolina in October. Gordon will dine with guests and later challenge them to a friendly go-kart race to raise money for The Hendrick Marrow Program. Although Gordon may take the checkered flag on any given Sunday, the real winners are those who benefit from his philanthropic endeavors each day.
The Unanswered Question
TALLADEGA, AL. (September 26)- - Today's landscape of Winston Cup racing would likely be very different had Davey Allison not been killed in a helicopter crash in 1993. At 32 years of age, he was a rising star with a powerful team-- a potent combination in any form of racing. But he had yet to realize his full potential behind the wheel of a race car. He had won 19 races in his career, including the Daytona 500, and came within one unfortunate break of winning the 1992 championship. However, ten years later the only thing left is a series of "what if" questions. "To sit here and say we might have so many wins and so many championships, that would be tough to nail a number," said Larry McReynolds, who was Allison's crew chief with Robert Yates Racing. "I do feel, based on our years together, we would have won a lot of races and one or more championships. That's the obvious thing everybody would expect me to say, but I do it with confidence. I would expect numerous, multiple wins. We would have had our share of championships. I don't mean to take away from any of the championships that people have won, but had Davey not been killed, there are some people who have multiple championships that wouldn't have as many. There are some people that have a championship that wouldn't have any." Yates Racing became a two-car team in the mid-90's and went on to win the 1999 championship with Dale Jarrett. Following Allison's death, a young star named Jeff Gordon stepped up to battle for championships. "I thought he had so much more ahead for him," Gordon said. "He hadn't reached his prime yet. There could have been more championships for Robert Yates and the Allison family." Could have and should have... who knows what might have been.
SMYRNA, DE. (September 22)- - Jeff Gordon began the summer season with a runner-up finish on the road course in Sonoma, California in late June. He concluded summer with a fifth place effort on the high banked oval in Dover, Delaware. However, the eleven races in between the summer bookends saw Gordon average a 21st place finish which ended any hopes of a fifth Winston Cup title in 2003. At Dover, Gordon started sixth and ran in the top-ten all afternoon. He made his way up to third by lap 47 and moved into the runner-up spot after the first round of pit stops on lap 84. He swapped second place with Tony Stewart before a round of caution flag pit stops on lap 165. A 14 second pit stop put Gordon into the lead. However, his lead was short-lived as Dale Earnhardt Jr took the top spot from Gordon on lap 181. Four laps later Stewart passed to send Gordon back to third. During a caution period for debris on lap 235, Gordon moved up to second with a quick pit stop. On the restart he took the lead from Earnhardt Jr on lap 244. Though Stewart would claim the point one lap later. Gordon dropped to fourth after pit stops under caution on lap 287. He came onto pit road for the final time on lap 325. A 17 second pit stop dropped him to 10th in the running order for the restart. He made his way through race traffic and passed Elliott Sadler on lap 358 to move into the top-five. After Earnhardt Jr crashed with 38 laps to go, Gordon stayed on the track and restarted in fourth. Though handling precluded him from challenging Ryan Newman, Jeremy Mayfield, and Kevin Harvick for position. Stewart took fourth from Gordon with 11 laps remaining. At the front of the field, Newman held off Mayfield to win his seventh race of the season while Gordon posted a much-needed top-five finish. "That was a good, strong finish," Gordon said. "We led laps. We've been performing well but we just haven't been putting it together at the end. We still missed a little at the end which took us out of contention for the win. But we made good adjustments. The car was probably as good as its been all day long right there at the end. With the way our last month and a half's been, I'll take a top-five."
Further Evolution Of NASCAR
DOVER, DE. (September 20)- - It has been a week of changes in NASCAR. The week began with Brian France taking over as Chairman and CEO of NASCAR when his 70-year-old father, Bill France, retired from the position. On Thursday, NASCAR announced an immediate ban on the longstanding practice of racing back to a caution flag. "We needed to find a better way to do it rather than racing back to the yellow, and the new procedures we are putting in place are the first step in the process," said Mike Helton, NASCAR President. "We will monitor and evaluate the new procedures and fine-tune them if needed as we move forward." Lapped cars will no longer be able to pass the leader and regain a lap when the caution flag comes out. Instead, the first car one lap down will be given a lap back. The remainder will not. In addition, new pit road rules were announced on Saturday morning in Dover. All cars will be required to come onto pit road in a single-file line. Any passing must be made to the right. Passing to the left on pit road would result in a penalty of restarting at the end of the longest line during a caution period or a pass-through penalty on pit road if the infraction is committed under green flag conditions. In discussing his pit road incident at Loudon, Jeff Gordon called for NASCAR to make a clearly defined policy regarding pit road entry. Suffice to say the governing body acted quickly. Though, as with any NASCAR policy, it is subject to alterations on a continuing basis.
Era Of Parity
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (September 17)- - It has been six seasons since Jeff Gordon posted 13 victories and an astounding 26 top-five finishes in 33 races. However, in NASCAR's recent era of parity, no driver has scored double digit wins in a season since Gordon's record breaking 1998 season. Comparing Jeff Gordon of 1998 to Jeff Gordon of 2003 is next to impossible. The sport has changed and the playing field has leveled. With just one victory in the last 34 races, some may perceive Gordon as being in a slump. After all, he won 33 races in the three-year period from 1996-1998. Terry Labonte, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, weighed in on Gordon's perceived fall from the elite level of the sport. "It is so difficult to stay at that level," Labonte said. "You don't see anybody that's been able to do that. It's not one thing or one person. It's just tough for an entire team to stay there and keep doing that. You've got 42 other teams shooting at you all the time. And it's difficult. They're still having a good year. Jeff is 6th in points. They're a threat to win more races than they've won and I'm sure they're going to continue to be a threat until the end of the year. But anytime you're in the top 10 in points and have been to Victory Lane, it's a pretty good year by today's standards. It's not as good as what they were accustomed to a few years ago, but it's still awful good."
Down Is Up, Up Is Down
LOUDON, N.H. (September 15)- - In what seems to be a common theme this summer, just when things looked promising for Jeff Gordon on the racetrack, disaster was right around the corner. In the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway, Gordon overcame one of the biggest mental mistakes of his racing career to position himself for a runner-up finish to race winner Jimmie Johnson. However, a miscalculation on pit road cost him a solid finish and he wound up 19th after running out of gas with two laps remaining. Gordon started seventh but moved through traffic and passed Ryan Newman for second place on lap 75. After green flag pit stops on lap 84, Gordon assumed the top spot. He lost the lead to Dale Earnhardt Jr five laps later and was running fourth when the first caution of the day waved on lap 130. Gordon came onto pit road and dove to the inside of Michael Waltrip in an attempt to get a faster entry into his pit stall. However, Waltrip's stall was positioned before Gordon. When Waltrip stopped, it squeezed Gordon's car sideways directly between Waltrip and Johnson's pit stalls. Before he could stop, Gordon hit three crewmen on Johnson's pit crew. Chris Anderson, Ryan McCray, and Cory Quick were struck by the DuPont Chevrolet with McCray and Quick slamming into the windshield. Fortunately they were able to continue with the pit stop on the Lowe's Chevrolet. Gordon dropped to 24th after the miscue. Over the next 55 laps, Gordon steadily moved up to 12th place after taking fuel only during a pit stop on lap 183. He moved up to sixth during a caution period on lap 199 when the drivers in front of him pitted. In the final 100 laps, he passed Jamie McMurray and Joe Nemechek for position and gained additional spots due to others making pit stops. With 23 laps remaining, Gordon came onto pit road for a quick gas only stop. Unfortunately the pit crew did not get enough gas in the car which was obviously a huge mistake in the scheme of the race. Gordon was running a distant second behind Johnson when the DuPont Chevrolet ran out of fuel on lap 298. He finished 19th, one lap down after an assist from Ken Schrader to coast around the track. While Johnson celebrated the victory, an emotional Gordon made his way to victory lane to check on the status of the crewmen. It was far from a good finish for the four-time champion, but his day could have turned into something much worse after the pit road mistake on lap 130. Gordon dropped to sixth in the standings as the focus has shifted to building momentum for the 2004 season.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
RICHMOND, VA. (September 7)- - It was a good news/bad news evening for Jeff Gordon in the Chevrolet 400 at Richmond International Raceway. He led the most laps, dodged trouble on the track, but faded in the late going before rallying to gain a top-10 finish. Gordon took the lead on lap 4 with a strong move to pass Greg Biffle. He held the top spot until Ryan Newman beat him off pit road under caution on lap 64. He regained the lead on lap 92 but gave up the point during pit stops on lap 122. Due to the pit stop cycle, he restarted in 8th and steadily worked his way forward. On lap 161 he passed both Bobby Labonte and Terry Labonte entering turn one to move up to third place. After a round of pit stops under caution on lap 190, he chased down Dale Earnhardt Jr and took the lead on lap 215. Earnhardt Jr retook the top spot 30 laps later. On lap 268, Jamie McMurray spun on the frontstretch. Gordon drove high into a cloud of smoke and barely missed McMurray's spinning car. Disaster was averted in a big way. Gordon came off of pit road with the lead but began losing positions shortly after the restart on lap 275. He fell back to ninth by the time the caution waved for Elliott Sadler's wreck on lap 286. Gordon came onto pit road for tires and restarted in 13th place. Unable to make headway in traffic, he came back onto pit road with 19 laps to go during a caution period after Jeff Burton wrecked Robby Gordon. He restarted in 12th but made his way up to 10th at the finish mainly due to Ricky Rudd's front bumper taking Kevin Harvick out of contention. Gordon remains fifth in the series points standings, a whopping 593 behind Matt Kenseth. While Ryan Newman celebrated his series leading sixth victory of the season, things turned ugly on pit road as Harvick and Rudd had a heated argument about the contact which sent Harvick into the turn one wall.
Beyond The Low Water Mark
RICHMOND, VA. (September 6)- - The month of September started off on the right foot for Jeff Gordon as he qualified fifth for Saturday's night's Chevrolet 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Gordon's lap of 125.03 was just over one-tenth of a second slower than Mike Skinner's pole winning lap. "The balance (in the car) was good but there's just not as much grip out there," Gordon said. "It's hard to get temperature in the tires around here in two laps but I'm real happy with the lap." While his pursuit of a fifth NASCAR championship will have to wait until 2004, there are still 11 more races in the 2003 season. After suffering through 4 DNF's in the past 6 races, a victory in Saturday night's race would do wonders for both Gordon and his team. In the past seven races, Gordon has averaged a 27th place finish-- the worst seven race average in his Winston Cup career. "August was a rough month for us and I'm glad it's over, but we've always been a team that doesn't dwell on the past," Gordon said. "We just look to the races ahead of us and how we can improve. Of course, it's not hard to improve on our results from last month." His recent results at the 3/4-mile Virginia short track have been unremarkable at best. In the last four races at Richmond his average finish is 25th. In the May race, Gordon battled handling issues and finished 16th. Last September he wrecked the Bugs Bunny car in practice and started at the rear of the field in a back-up car. He completed just 53 laps before a broken camshaft sent him behind the wall. Despite the difficult stretch of late, Gordon has a history of picking himself off the canvas at Richmond. After winning the 1995 Winston Cup title, Gordon started 1996 with finishes of 42nd at Daytona and 40th at Rockingham. He came to Richmond and proved to the competition that the previous year was not a fluke by winning the race in dominating fashion. In the midst of a rebuilding season in 2000, Gordon came to Richmond mired 10th in the points standings. He finished the season with nine top-10 finishes in the final ten races following a dramatic win under the lights at Richmond. "It was our first year with crew chief Robbie Loomis and our finishes weren't indicative of how well we were running," Gordon said. "The results started to show at the end of that year and we carried that momentum into our championship year of 2001. That's how I look at this past month. We've led laps and had some good runs; we just don't have the good finishes to show for it. I'm really looking forward to Saturday night. I enjoy racing here and we always seem to be competitive.... and it's September."
Alabama Driving Test
TALLADEGA, AL. (September 1)- - Jeff Gordon spent a late August day at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama to give driving safety tips to eight high school students from the Talladega County School System. Gordon helped put the students through two different driving tests at the track, with the winner receiving four tickets to the race weekend in late September. Students competed on the DuPont Get Real Behind the Wheel simulator and the Talladega Pit Road Egg Challenge. "This is a fun way for these teenagers to come out, take a test drive, pick up some safety tips and maybe win some Talladega tickets," Gordon said. "A lot of things you learn in drivers education are more important than you realize." The Get Real Behind the Wheel simulator allowed the students to test their driving skills in real-life situations. The Talladega Pit Road Egg Challenge was a cone course designed to stress merging with traffic while adding a twist at the end- who ever stopped the car closest to the final cone without knocking an egg perched on top would receive a two-point bonus. Gordon watched as five of the eight students got a little too close and knocked an egg off the cone and made a comment about today's distractions. "When I got my license, we didn't have cell phones," Gordon said. "Cell phones are great and they're fun, but you don't need to be planning your weekend or cutting up. If you have to talk, take a few minutes and pull over." Gordon said today's teenagers seem to wear their seatbelts more than in his high school days, but that many young drivers still don't accept all the responsibility that goes with driving. "Each year there are 4 million kids who get their licenses, and within the first 12 months half of them are going to get into accidents," he said. "The main thing about driving is staying alert, and if you're on the phone or sleepy or sick and taking medication, you aren't as alert as you need to be when you drive. When I was driving (in high school), wearing seat belts wasn't cool. Now it's not only cool, it's the law. The first thing you should do when you get in a car is buckle up- there's just no excuse not to." Chris Machen, a senior at B.B. Comer High, was 1.3 points behind the leader after the simulator test. He had a perfect score on the cone course and pulled up within 2.25-inches of the cone for the two-point bonus and the win. "This has just been one of the best days ever," said Machen. "To be here at Talladega Superspeeday, hanging out with Jeff Gordon, driving on pit road and winning tickets for the race weekend... it's been a great day."
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