Good Ol' Boys - NASCAR

Rainbow Warrior wins this battle
By Doug Belliveau
June 29, 200

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The familiar #24 DuPont Chevy

Jeff Gordon, the Rainbow Warrior, used his road course skills to take first place at Sears Point this past weekend. He may have won this last battle, but can he win the war and reclaim his throne in the future? Gordon is accustomed to winning in NASCAR. Now in his 8th year of Winston Cup racing, Jeff's career statistics are nothing short of phenomenal. In 238 races, he has piled up 51 wins. And even more difficult to grasp is the fact that he has 114 top-5 finishes, resulting in a top-5 place in every other race entered! From 1994 to 1998, he finished in no less than second place in the standings, including three championships along the way. Double-digit victories were accomplished in 1996, 1997 and 1998. These were the years that you knew the DuPont car was never out of a race. With 10 laps to go, Jeff would almost always appear from the pack to challenge for the win.

All this success resulted in a mixed reaction from racing fans. Fans either loved him or hated him. Unfortunately for Jeff, I think the latter was more often the case. Some people called him a whiner and a spoiled young brat. Some disliked him because he wore his Christian faith on his sleeve by placing biblical verses on his dashboard. Excessive media coverage and goofy commercial appearances also turned off others. And apparently he didn't help his image when he married a former Miss Winston. So during the 2000 season, something is happening that was previously unheard of - fans are ignoring him. In 10th place and outside of the spotlight during many races, there hasn't been much to elicit fan response. They are now cheering and jeering for Stewart, Mayfield, Jarrett, Labonte and the Earnhardts instead.

Goofy commercials turned off a lot of fans

During this "downturn" in his career, Jeff has been a model citizen. If he was in fact a spoiled brat earlier in his career, we've seen no indications of that this year. There have been no incidents with the media or other drivers. Jeff has accepted this as a rebuilding year and is working to gel the team with newcomers Robbie Loomis and Brian Whitesell.

So what lies in Jeff Gordon's future? It is easy to say that Jeff's success was due to Ray Evernham and his team. And Jeff's slide did coincide with Ray's departure in September of last year. But is that really a fair assessment? Was it really just the car and the team? I find that very hard to swallow. CART fans always claim that open-wheel road courses require the most skill and that oval stock car racing is for "lazy" drivers. So why is it that Jeff has had tremendous success at Sears Point and Watkins Glen, even during the past year? The last I checked these tracks still have tricky twists and turns.

Granted, a top-notch machine and pit crew is necessary to be competitive in NASCAR. But would Hendrick Motorsports have picked any average driver to join the team back in 1993? I think even someone who dislikes Gordon would have to admit that this is absurd. As a matter of fact, Gordon was hand-picked by Hendrick specifically because he was so impressed by his success in open wheel racing.

Another championship for the young Gordon

Can Gordon reclaim his dominance in NASCAR sometime in the future? That would be very difficult for any driver. This year there is a high level of parity as no one has won more than two races so far. There is so much money and talent in NASCAR that it is difficult to imagine anyone being able to rack up more than five or six wins in a season. Can he again challenge for the Winston Cup Championship? Personally I would be very surprised if Jeff finishes his career with three championships. Maybe this year he has too much ground to make up, but I believe that Jeff will once again be working his way towards victory lane in the near future.

Finally, ask yourself this question: You are a team owner who's invested millions of dollars to develop a new racing team. You need someone to successfully drive your car and Jeff Gordon is available. Would you pass up the opportunity? Yeah, that's what I thought. 

Photos courtesy of MSI

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Sears Point
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