Still The One

Season Recap

After the Atlanta race in March, the whispering became more audible. Had Jeff Gordon's amazing three year run as the leader in NASCAR victories come to an end? Was the DuPont team becoming an also ran? Will Gordon leave Hendrick Motorsports? The rumors began. If you told Jeff Gordon after the Atlanta race that he'd finish the season with 11 victories and the Winston Cup title, he'd probably think you were crazy. But, it happened. We all witnessed the amazing turnaround firsthand.

The season began at Daytona in February. On the last lap restart of the Bud Shootout, Rusty Wallace sped away on the outside of Gordon. In a desperate attempt to stay even with Wallace, Gordon broke his transmission. It was one that got away, but it didn't count for points. In the Daytona 500, the DuPont Chevrolet dropped a cylinder while running second in the closing laps. An engine problem? When was the last time that happened?

The scene shifted to Rockingham, North Carolina and early in the Goodwrench 400, things looked bleak. Gordon had handling trouble and was in danger of going a lap down. The crew worked on the car during each pit stop and late in the race, it was as Buddy Baker would say, "a rocketship." Gordon passed Rusty Wallace for his first win of 1998. It would be the last happy moment for awhile though. Crew chief Ray Evernham elected not to test at the new Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The decision would haunt him during the Las Vegas 400. Gordon was never a factor and finished 17th, two laps off the pace. At Atlanta, Gordon was once again fodder for the leaders as he went a lap down and finished 19th. Suddenly, the questions abounded. Had the team lost its edge? Or was it just that the Ford Taurus was a superior race car compared to the Chevrolet Monte Carlo? After a minor rules change, the DuPont Chevrolet came back to life. A runner up finish at Darlington followed by a victory at Bristol restored the team's confidence.

Over the next four events, Gordon did not post a top three finish. But, the finishes were more consistent than early in the season. A lap two wreck at Texas, eighth at Martinsville, fifth at Talladega, and fourth in California brought the team to Charlotte Raceweek in May. It was the two week stretch from mid-May to late-May that defined Jeff Gordon's 1998 season. Get knocked down, get back up stronger.

In the Winston all star race, Gordon dominated the event building a comfortable lead over Mark Martin in the final ten lap segment. However, a fuel miscalculation resulted in the car running out of gas on the final lap. Evernham was embarrassed by the performance in Las Vegas. The Winston fuel gaffe was shameful. It would be the final mistake the team would make in 1998. Gordon went out and won the pole position for the Coca Cola 600, dedicating it to Evernham who had a tough week leading up to that. In the race, Gordon came into the pits in fifth place late in the event. While the leaders changed two tires, Evernham made the call to change four. Gordon charged through the field and won the race. They dominated the following week at Dover, settling for third place after a late fuel stop.

At Richmond, Gordon crashed. Ok, maybe he had some help getting into the wall. Whatever. It was the last time he finished outside of the top 10 until he won the Winston Cup. Third place at Michigan (the roll bar padding race), second at Pocono, and a win at Sears Point closed out the month of June. He didn't know it at the time, but the Sears Point win would be the start of the 'Rainbow Summer' in NASCAR.

After finishing third in New Hampshire, Gordon won four consecutive races tying the modern era record. The first win came at Pocono. He won the $1,000,000 No Bull Five bonus by winning at the Brickyard. Gordon followed that up with a win on the winding road course in Watkins Glen, New York. And finally, he won at Michigan after changing two tires on the final pit stop to gain track position.

A touch of the flu wore him out at Bristol in late-August, but he still finished fifth. On Labor Day weekend, he won his fourth consecutive Southern 500 and second $1,000,000 No Bull Five bonus of the season. Mark Martin had engine trouble at Darlington which allowed Gordon to open almost a 200 point lead on his rival. Three consecutive runner up finishes at Richmond, Dover, and Martinsville increased his points lead. Martin still had a shot at the title heading into the UAW-GM 500 in Charlotte in early-October. Bobby Labonte spun to trigger a multi-car wreck. In the melee, Terry Labonte hit the left rear quarterpanel of the DuPont Chevrolet. Gordon managed to keep the car under control and finished fifth. A runner up finish at Talladega and a victory under the lights at Daytona cemented his name on the Winston Cup title. Martin stayed mathematically alive finishing second at Phoenix, but was officially eliminated at Rockingham.

It's not a question of what Gordon has accomplished. It's only a matter of what he has yet to achieve. The answer is not much. Except for more wins and more titles. Something that's sure to keep him busy for years to come. 1998 was a dominant year for Jeff Gordon. A year where he proved that he's still the one at the top of the NASCAR world.

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