The Way To Sesame Street
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (November 18)- - For the third consecutive year, The Jeff Gordon Foundation will join forces with Sesame Street to produce a special diecast car to benefit several children's charities, including The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, The Make-A-Wish Foundation, The Marrow Foundation and the Riley Hospital for Children. The 2004 car will feature Big Bird, the most popular Sesame Street character of all-time. Although this car will not be raced, it will again generate hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for these children's charities. Elmo (2002) and Cookie Monster (2003) were the Sesame Street characters featured in previous years. Gordon established The Jeff Gordon Foundation in December 1999 to support children and families in need.
Engine Builder of the Year
HOMESTEAD, FLA. (November 16)- - After posting nine top-7 finishes in the final 10 races of the season, Jeff Gordon's team captured the Clevite Engine Builder of the Year award for Mike Maiwald of Hendrick Engines. Jerry Carcone (#17 engine builder) and Greg Ollish (#8 engine builder) had led the competition for most of the season. However, poor finishes by Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr, coupled with Gordon's fifth place effort at Homestead shook up the final standings. The award is a competition among the NASCAR engine builders using a special points system- the top 15 finishing positions get points starting at 15 points for 1st place on down to 1 point for 15th place. Bonus points are awarded to starting positions 1, 2 and 3 (pole position=5 points, 2nd=3 points and 3rd=1 point). Also, five additional bonus points are awarded for the car that leads the most laps per race. For tracks that have multiple races, only one event is factored into the scoring. Hendrick Engines have a long standing history of winning the award. Randy Dorton won the award in 1986, Rick Wetzel won the award in 1989 and 2001, and Charlie Siegars captured the prize in 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998.
Ending In Style
HOMESTEAD, FLA. (November 16)- - The drama of the 2003 racing season lasted until the final lap. After dominating the 400-mile race at Homstead-Miami Speedway, Bill Elliott cut a tire coming off turn two, less than one mile from the finish line. Bobby Labonte took the lead on the backstretch to win his second race of the season and 21st of his career. Elliott faded back to eighth place at the line. Jeff Gordon took advantage of early crash which eliminated Ryan Newman from contention to move up to fourth in the final points standings with an arduous fifth place finish. Gordon was never a contender for the lead following a brief stay at the front of the field for four laps early in the day, but ran consistently in the top-ten throughout the day. He battled a tight handling condition and made some gambles on pit road for track position. He was running a distant sixth when Elliott's tire problem on the final lap allowed him to score a top-five finish. It was also Gordon's 20th top-ten finish of the season-- his ninth consecutive season with at least 20 top-ten finishes. Gordon finished fourth in the point standings for the second consecutive season. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson finished third at Homestead and hung on to the runner-up position in the points standings. In addition, Terry Labonte finished 10th in the final points standings giving HMS three drivers in the top-10. It was Labonte's first top-10 points finish since 1998 and completed a rebound season for the two-time champion after he finished 24th in the points standings in 2002. Three Hendrick Motorsports teams finished in the top-10 of the final points standings for the first time since 1994. Nine years ago, Ken Schrader in the #25 car finished fourth, Labonte finished seventh, and Gordon finished eighth in points. "We had a great day," Gordon said. "We finished fourth in points. Jimmie stayed in second in points. I'm really proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. I have to thank all those guys at our facility. All around it was a great effort. We'll be back next year and try to do it again." Exit stage right RJR; welcome Nextel. A new era in NASCAR begins.
Life Along The Biscayne Shore
MIAMI BEACH, FLA. (November 14)- - The sun shines brightly over Biscayne Bay this week. From atop the Portofino Tower in South Beach, the view is like a postcard sent by tourists to their friends in freezing climates. The rich and famous are cavorting on Star Island, the Banyan trees are swaying in the distance, tan crusaders are worshiping the sun, and Tara Reid is hanging out upstairs at Level. But there is angst in the sports world between latitude 25 and 26. You don't need to read Edwin Pope's column in The Miami Herald to realize that. In football the questions are simply, "Fiedler or Griese?" for the floundering Dolphins, and "Crudup or Berlin?" for the disheveled Hurricanes. The Panthers hockey team is coming back up for air after firing their head coach in what amounted to a management power struggle last week. The Heat has the worst record in the NBA and it could be another long season at the 'Triple-A.' The phone lines at WQAM, the local sports radio station, are ablaze with disgruntled fans. Some have taken to meditating in the gardens at Vizcaya. Others have maxed out their credit cards at Lincoln Road, preferring monetary debt to sports misery. While a select few have driven down Card Sound Road for a day of fishing off the back deck at Alabama Jack's. Anything for a diversion when it gets down to it. Senior citizens strolling through Sawgrass Mills, CocoWalk, and Sunset Place aren't even upset about their grandchildren forgetting to call. Not when the South Florida sports world, with the exception of the Marlins, has seemingly collapsed around them. Things are so bad that even the patrons at Nikki Beach Club and Joe's Stone Crab have started complaining (ok, maybe that one's a stretch!) But alas, NASCAR racing has arrived at its final port of call for 2003. About a half hour south of Miami lies the redesigned 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway, host of Sunday's 400 mile race. Earlier this year the banking in the corners was increased from six degrees to a variable banking of 18-20 degrees. With the points championship having been clinched last week by Matt Kenseth, the only uncertainty is over which driver will go to which team for 2004 and which driver will finish second in the standings? Jimmie Johnson has the inside track, but Dale Earnhardt Jr is within striking distance. Ryan Newman has an outside chance if both struggle at Homestead while Jeff Gordon would need all three drivers to have sub-par efforts to claim the runner-up spot. Gordon has finished in the top-five in the series points standings in seven out of the last eight years. After Sunday's race he hopes to make it eight out of nine. Though Gordon has three top-10 finishes in four Winston Cup starts at Homestead, the reconfiguration makes it essentially a new track.
Kenseth Wins The Title; Elliott Takes The Race
ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (November 10)- - In February 1998, Matt Kenseth started a Busch race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C. in a rather hideously painted blue and red car. His team was without sponsorship, having lost their one-race internet company sponsor after Daytona. The prize money from Daytona funded the team's Rockingham trip. They kept the internet company's logos on the car at Rockingham, hoping that the gesture-- and a strong finish-- would keep the company interested. On the final lap of the race, Kenseth used a bump pass to take win away from Tony Stewart. Suffice to say, the internet company signed on for the rest of the season and Kenseth's career progressed on track. Five years later, Kenseth clinched his first Winston Cup championship on the same Rockingham track. This time around he didn't need to use an agressive move, just a combination of guile, determination, and good fortune which seemed to follow him throughout the season. He scored a victory at Las Vegas, and 25 top-ten finishes en route to the title. A strong fourth place finish sealed the deal at Rockingham. Congratulations to Matt, crew chief Robbie Reiser, car owners Jack Roush and Mark Martin, the #17 DeWalt Ford team, and everyone at Roush Racing on winning their first Winston Cup championship.
At the front of the field in the Pop Secret 400, Bill Elliott and the #9 Evernham Motorsports team, a day after winning the World Pit Crew Championship, captured their first win of the season. Elliott passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead on lap 320 and held off the second year driver to win his 44th career race. Johnson finished second, followed by Jeremy Mayfield, Kenseth, and Ryan Newman rounding out the top five.
Jeff Gordon's day started off on the right foot as he advanced from his 16th starting spot up to 4th by lap 76. However, a lap 85 battle with Newman hurt his chances. Running side by side, Newman came off turn four and went low into the right side of Gordon's car, damaging the right front fender. In turn one, Gordon retaliated by moving up the track to spin Newman's car. NASCAR black-flagged Gordon for a one lap penalty. By lap 100 he was back on the lead lap thanks to some well timed caution flags. He restarted 26th and had worked his way up to 16th before caution flag pit stops on lap 155. Gordon was blocked in his pit stall by Tony Raines and dropped back to 23rd. He steadily worked through traffic battling a tight handling car before pitting on lap 238. However, Mark Martin's blown engine brought out the caution flag four laps later which trapped Gordon nearly two laps down. He lost the second lap soon after the restart when Johnson passed. On lap 316 Gordon pitted for tires, and once again was caught pitting early as the caution waved on lap 331 when Brian Vickers hit Ricky Rudd entering turn one. Gordon restarted three laps down in 27th and worked his way up to 22nd at the finish. For Gordon, it was a rather forgettable day in the sandhills.
Newman On The Point-- Again and Again
ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (November 8)- - Ryan Newman will start on the pole position for the 11th time this year after topping the charts in qualifying for Sunday's Pop Secret 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. The front row is the same as last week at Phoenix with Brian Vickers lining up alongside Newman. Jeff Gordon looked to have a strong qualifying lap going, but fought his car in the middle of turns three and four and fell to 16th. In his past four races at Rockingham, Gordon's average starting position is 22nd. Another era in NASCAR racing will come to an end after Sunday's race. This marks the final fall race at the 1.017-mile track as the venue will host only a February race weekend in 2004. Gordon has had tremendous success at Rockingham-- from winning races to clinching a championship there. In 21 Winston Cup starts, Gordon has accumulated four wins. Although he clinched the 1998 Winston Cup Championship in the fall event, his favorite memories of the track also include his time in the Busch Series. "We won two or three races at the end of the 1998 and Rockingham was one of those and that was a great memory," Gordon said of his last victory at the track. "I also remember winning my first race in February 1995, but one of my fondest memories is my first race here in a Busch car in 1990 when I qualified on the outside pole." Though with 10 top-ten finishes in 21 Winston Cup races, the track does seem to be feast or famine for him. "Rockingham has always been a track of 'hit or miss,' it seems like there is very little in between," Gordon said. "I go there sometimes and I love the track. Other times, I'm just scratching my head and thinking 'what in the world do we need to do to run better.' It's a very finicky track and you can never say you have it figured out."
Mysteries Of The Desert
AVONDALE, AZ. (November 3)- - Eleven times Jeff Gordon has started a Winston Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway, and eleven times victory lane has eluded him. In the Checker 500, Gordon battled handling issues for most of the race-- running between third and tenth nearly all day. He started the day with a loose condition as he fell as low as 10th on lap 120. After a hard crash in turn three involving Jimmy Spencer, the field came onto pit road. A two tire pit stop moved Gordon up to fourth. He took third with an agressive "slide job" on Kevin Harvick coming off turn four which angered the quick-tempered driver of the #29 Chevrolet. Though Gordon couldn't make headway toward the front of the pack. He was running ninth when a wreck directly behind him eliminated perennial contenders Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, and Harvick. The incident began when Wallace got into the rear of Stewart's car in the middle of turns one and two. Both drivers spun and collected Labonte and Harvick running directly behind them. For Harvick, it is his second incident in as many weeks which has destroyed the faint hopes he had of catching Matt Kenseth for the points title. On the restart, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jimmie Johnson battled for the race lead while Gordon steadily moved up to fifth. However, a tight handling condition persisted and Gordon brought the DuPont Chevrolet to pit road under caution on lap 269 for two tires. He restarted in 12th with 38 laps remaining and gained three spots over the next 18 laps. With four laps to go he passed Mark Martin to move into seventh. On the final lap, as Earnhardt Jr pulled away for his second victory of the season, Gordon held the outside line and edged Jeff Burton for seventh place. "We just never got the car quite right, and we didn't want to take a chance on fuel there at the end so we came in," Gordon said. "But we kept pace with the guys in front of us and now we go to Rockingham." It was Gordon's seventh consecutive top-10 finish which moved him up to fourth in the series points standings.
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