Bringin' It All Year Long

ROCKINGHAM N.C. - - Jeff Gordon put the finishing touches on his third career Winston Cup title at Rockingham. For Gordon, it was the culmination of a remarkable season. By far his most consistent season in his NASCAR career.

As was the case in 1997, his two main rivals for the championship were Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett. Though, unlike 1997, Gordon kept both rivals a safe distance behind him as the 1998 season drew to a close. At this moment, Gordon is the King of NASCAR. He has no rivals; no equals. He stands alone at the pinnacle of his sport.

What is the reason for Gordon's dominance? There is no single factor, but rather a combination of things. For starters, his team chemistry is second to none. Ray Evernham, Ed Guzzo, Patrick Donahue, Brian Whitesell and the rest of the team are a tight unit. No detail is ignored in preparing for the race. Another factor is the Hendrick Motorsports organization. The talent roster is deep in Harrisburg, North Carolina. How many other teams have a research and development building? A third factor is a more complex one. It's the Ford factor.

I will preface this by saying that Mark Martin has been a great race driver over the past ten years. He has been Ford's brighest star this decade. But, he would be lower on the Ford totem pole if Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki were still around. Kulwicki won the Winston Cup title in 1992 driving a Ford Thunderbird. Since 1989, Kulwicki has been the only Ford driver to win a Winston Cup title. Allison seemed destined for super stardom. He came within an Ernie Irvan mistake of winning the 1992 title but surely he'd get a title down the road. The road ended for both Kulwicki and Allison in separate aviation accidents in 1993. When Allison was racing in the early 1990's, Ford was pouring money into Robert Yates Racing. They're still doing so, but Roush Racing has seemed to overtake Yates as being the darlings of Ford Motorsports. It's a numbers game now. Five teams beats two teams.

With Kulwicki and Allison on the track, it is doubtful that Martin would be Ford's top runner. But, that's a moot point. Right now, it seems that the only competition for Gordon is in the Busch series. Whether it be the Martin-esque Wisconsin native Matt Kenseth or Dale Earnhardt Jr, the son of the legendary racer. Obviously, if Gordon struggles, a number of drivers are still around to pass him by. Martin, Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Terry Labonte, and Jeremy Mayfield will all provide Gordon with stiff competition in 1999. But those drivers have already played their hand. It's a hand that Gordon has seen hundreds of times over the past few seasons. The new blood in the Busch series (along with that Petty kid in ARCA series) seem like the drivers that will challenge Gordon's run for the record books. With Jarrett over 40 years of age, Martin turning 40 next season, Wallace over 40 years of age, Terry Labonte over 40 years of age, and the inconsistency of Burton, Mayfield, and Labonte, Gordon seems to be suffering from a lack of true rivals.

When Gordon beat Dale Earnhardt for the Winston Cup title in 1995, the media speculated that the "Intimidator-Wonder Boy" rivalry had began. It was over as soon as it began. The 1995 season has been the last season that Dale Earnhardt challenged for the Winston Cup. In following years, he struggled to stay in the top 5, and then struggled to stay in the top 10. It wouldn't surprise me if Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, or another driver won the Winston Cup next season. But, it would take a full season of consistency to beat Jeff Gordon.

In 1998, Mark Martin had a career year. He won seven races which was a career high. He posted more top ten finishes than he ever did. But Gordon killed him in the points standings. After a 37th place finish at Richmond in June, Gordon put together a string of 17 consecutive top five finishes including eight victories in that span. Martin ran consistent but an engine problem at Darlington and a wreck at Talladega put his title hopes on the back burner for another season. In 1998, Jeff Gordon was bringin' it all year long. He won the title his way; by winning the race too.

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