Back In The High Life Again

(November 19, 2001)- - Jeff Gordon won his fourth Winston Cup title with a sixth place finish in the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. While the race team has changed since his last title, one thing remains the same: Jeff Gordon is on top of the NASCAR world.

After winning championships in 1995, 1997, and 1998, Gordon's team faced upheaval in the second half of the 1999 season. Rumors had been floating during 1999 about crew chief Ray Evernham's future plans. He had hinted that he wanted to expand his role beyond crew chief responsibilities. Gordon and Evernham had started a Busch Grand National team that year. Speculation was that Gordon and Evernham would break away from Hendrick Motorsports and form their own team. Dodge had approached the pair in 1998 about joining the manufacturer when they made their return to Winston Cup racing in 2001. At the time, both turned down Dodge's offer. But Dodge was persistent. When they couldn't get both the driver and the crew chief, they focused on the individuals. Evernham lusted for a new challenge. And Dodge could provide him with it. Full ownership, sponsorship, R&D support, and the risk that Evernham needed. In September 1999, Evernham departed Hendrick Motorsports. A week later Gordon signed a "lifetime contract" with Rick Hendrick.

After his longtime crew chief's departure, Gordon struggled to return to the top of the series standings. Five members of his pit crew departed after the 1999 season. The DuPont team began the 2000 season with a new pit crew, new crew chief in Robbie Loomis, and a different attitude. For the first time since the start of the 1995 season they were not the favorites to win the Winston Cup.

The renovated group started slowly in 2000. Gordon's first top five finish came in the season's eighth race. He won three races that year-- his lowest total since 1994. While Gordon remained confident that Loomis could lead him to a Winston Cup title, others had their doubts. Whether it was fans in the grandstand or reporters with a 10 inch column, the doubts on Loomis intensified. In making their 2001 pre-season selections, The Charlotte Observer predicted that Gordon would finish in the top 10 in the series standings-- but not much of an improvement over 2000 when he finished 9th in points. They also predicted a major shakeup within Gordon's team if he had another season like 2000.

Suffice to say, Robbie Loomis answered the critics in 2001. Along with team manager Brian Whitesell, the pair devised a strategy going into the season that they felt would generate the best results. In January, they tested at Daytona, Rockingham, and Las Vegas-- the three tracks which began the season. Getting off to a good start was essential in the run for the title. Gordon was involved in a wreck in the Daytona 500, but led the most laps and finished third at Rockingham. At Las Vegas he came on strong late in the race and won his first race on the Nevada track. Three races into the season Gordon was second in the points standings. The DuPont team got off to the good start they were hoping for. Two wins in June, two in August, and one in September thrust Gordon in the points lead.

In any championship season, having good racing luck is essential. At Chicago in July, Gordon was running in the top five for most of the day. In the closing stages he dropped a cylinder and faded to a 17th place finish on the lead lap. Had that occurred earlier in the event it's likely that Gordon would not have made it to the finish. At Talladega in October, Gordon was running directly behind Ricky Craven when Bobby Labonte and Bobby Hamilton made contact at the front of the field. Craven was eliminated in the ensuing 20 car melee. Gordon somehow made his way through the carnage by playing bumper tag with Matt Kenseth. His seventh place finish virtually assured him of his fourth title after Ricky Rudd was engulfed in the last lap wreck.

Compared to his previous championship seasons, 2001 was an anomaly. In 1995 he won seven races, he won ten events in 1997, and thirteen in 1998. He visited victory lane just six times in 2001. But consistency was a key. He posted a top five finish at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001-- the first time he finished in the top 20 at the 1.5-mile track. He posted more top 10 finishes in 2001 than he did in 1995 and 1997. In a ten race stretch from mid July until early October, Gordon posted nine top 10 finishes. During the stretch he went from a tie atop the standings with Dale Jarrett to a lead of more than 200 points. Though he faltered a bit down the stretch, the lead was nearly insurmountable.

When Ray Evernham left Jeff Gordon in 1999, some predicted that Gordon's days of winning Winston Cup titles were over. In 2001, Gordon proved that while Evernham was a key ingredient in his title seasons, he wasn't the only one. After a rebuilding season in 2000, Gordon, crew chief Robbie Loomis, and team manager Brian Whitesell came out with something to prove in 2001. They proved that all the doors that closed one time will open up again. Back in the high life again.

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