Not since the days of Richard Petty had a driver dominated a season like Jeff Gordon
dominated 1998. At the beginning of 1999, expectations ran high throughout the DuPont
team. Could they surpass 13 wins from a year earlier? Could they win three Winston Cup
titles in a row? Were they a dynasty?
After holding off Dale Earnhardt in a thrilling ten lap battle to win the Daytona 500, most predicted a runaway fourth title for Gordon. However, a blown engine at Rockingham proved to be an omen for the season ahead. A solid effort at Las Vegas was followed by a victory in Atlanta and a third place finish at Darlington. After the TranSouth 400, Gordon had moved up to second in points. It was the closest he would get to the top spot. A blown tire at Texas resulted in hard contact with the turn four wall and Gordon suffered bruised ribs. After two more top five finishes, a hard crash at Talladega pushed him back to fifth in the standings. His third win came at California, but inconsistency lingered. Finishes of 31st and 39th in the next two events saw him fall to 8th in points, the season's low-water mark. A consistent summer, which saw him win both road course events, helped Gordon rebound to fourth in points by Labor Day. However, at that point it was Dale Jarrett's title to lose. As September progressed, crew chief Ray Evernham left the team in order to form his own Winston Cup team for the future. Along with Evernham, chief mechanic Ed Guzzo and fabricator Bill Deese departed to join Evernham's new operation. Gordon's pit crew negotiated a deal with Robert Yates Racing for the 2000 season. In addition to losing his crew chief, chief mechanic, and lead fabricator, Gordon would also be losing his famed pit crew at the end of the season. Brian Whitesell took over as crew chief and Gordon won his first two races at Martinsville and Charlotte with Whitesell. The Martinsville win saw Gordon hold off a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt and the Charlotte victory saw Gordon pass Bobby Labonte late in the event to pull away. The Charlotte race would be his last top five finish of the season as the DuPont team struggled down the stretch. A blown engine in the final race at Atlanta ended the 1999 campaign.
In 1998, the DuPont team "upped the ante" and turned mastery into unbeatable excellence. In "The Winner Within," Pat Riley uses the Los Angeles Lakers as his example of a team that had accomplished dominance and then had to deal with its core cracking. However, his words can apply to the DuPont team's 1999 season. "The evolution of the people on the team eventually makes the core crack and nothing can change that," Riley writes. "Core cracking is a realist's recognition that the cycle of change cannot be sidestepped." The phenomenon of dominance had played itself out. People never stay the same. It was simply time for Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham to sit in the same room, look each other in the eye, and say, 'We had a great run. Now, instead of wounding each other, let's say thanks and goodbye.' The official "goodbye" came in late September; but, in reality, it came much earlier in the season. When the core cracks, team members have two options. They can choose to "move on" to a new team, or they can "move on" by initiating change in the current organization. Ray Evernham chose option one, Jeff Gordon chose option two.
"Renewal always begins with destruction, a cracking of the core covenant and its inner circle of people." Riley writes. "Moving on is not a retreat from defeat, but an exhilarating change that makes you feel vital and alive."
In October 1999, Jeff Gordon purchased an equity interest in the ownership of the #24 team. His role on the team was changing. He wasn't just the driver anymore, but also the owner. The inner-workings of the team weren't Ray Evernham's responsibility anymore; they were his. Riley writes, "The first triumph after 'moving on' is to become an upstart who quickly earns the right to compete for a championship and who takes the bold first steps of a totally Innocent Climb."
The 2000 season begins with a renewal of the team's core covenant and a new life cycle. Robbie Loomis steps in as crew chief and Brian Whitesell moves up to team manager, but the team leader is now Jeff Gordon.
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