Gordon has Earnhardt, Petty in his sights

Monday, November 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) _ As Jeff Gordon hoisted the mammoth trophy, the spoils of another Winston Cup championship, he ditched a much heavier burden.

Yes, he could win a championship without his mentor.

Yes, he could bounce back from one of his worst seasons.

Yes, he deserves a place alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

Gordon clinched his fourth Winston Cup title Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, cruising to a sixth-place finish in the NAPA 500 while Bobby Labonte was winning the race.

For Gordon, this was all about redemption.

He won his first three championships with Ray Evernham as crew chief. After Evernham left to run his own team at Dodge, Gordon slumped to ninth in the standings last year.

Naturally, there were plenty of people who wondered if ``Wonder Boy'' could regain his dominance.

``What I like about the criticism is that it motivates me and this team to go out and prove them wrong,'' Gordon said, savoring another championship on a cool fall night. ``There were some tough times. To see these guys stick together and come back as strong as we did this year makes me really proud.''

Here's something else that should make him proud: Gordon got his fourth season championship a lot quicker than Earnhardt and Petty, the only other drivers to win that many.

Petty was 35 when he captured his fourth title, Earnhardt 39. Both went on to claim three more championships apiece in their storied careers.

Gordon turned 30 in August. He's only been racing in Winston Cup for nine years. While one can't get caught looking too far ahead in life-and-death world of racing, the march to seven championships _ and beyond _ appears inevitable.

``When you see Jeff Gordon at 30 years old, how mature he is in the car, and you see the chemistry of this team, I think we're going to win a lot of championships,'' car owner Rick Hendrick said. ``I'd like to say we're going to win seven or eight championships. That's certainly our goal.''

The Gordon-Evernham team dominated Winston Cup from 1995-98, winning three championships and finishing second the other year. Their reign peaked in 1998 with a 13-victory season, tying Petty's modern record.

Evernham left during the 1999 season, and Gordon slumped to sixth. Last year, Robbie Loomis took over as crew chief and the Rainbow Warriors broke in a bunch of new people in the garage. The result: only three victories and a drop of three more places in the season standings.

Gordon had not finished that low since his rookie season of 1993. He was downright uncomfortable when the got to the season-ending banquet.

``Me and Robbie were sitting at that No. 9 table in New York,'' Gordon recalled. ``The speaker was blowing us out. We couldn't hear each other talk. We made a promise to each other that we would not be sitting at that table the next year.''

Hendrick is impressed with the way Gordon held the team together through the tough times.

``He kept his head up last year when everybody was writing us off,'' Hendrick said. ``You hear other drivers all the time saying their car is no good. But he shouldered all the responsibility.''

With Earnhardt's death at the season-opening Daytona 500, Gordon is clearly the biggest star in the sport. Yet, all that success at such an early age appears to have spawned a degree of jealousy among his competitors.

Just listen to Sterling Marlin, who is 14 years older and hasn't come close to winning his first championship.

``Jeff is a great driver, but he stepped right into one of the top rides when he came in,'' said Marlin, who finished second in Sunday's race. ``He had Ray Evernham with him. When you surround yourself with good people (and) ... you get good equipment, you can go.''

In a symbolic touch, Gordon wrapped up the title on the same day that Labonte, last year's champion, took the checkered flag. Jerry Nadeau held a commanding lead until he ran out of gas on the final lap, allowing Labonte to streak by coming out of turn four.

Marlin and Kevin Harvick also passed Nadeau, who limped across in fourth place.

By that time, Labonte's tenure as champion was over. Gordon ensured himself of enough points with five laps to go, the moment marked with a banner above his pit stall.

Labonte was more gracious than Marlin, but still the conversation turned to Gordon beginning his career at age 21 with a first-rate team.

``He started off with good equipment. There's nothing wrong with that,'' Labonte said. ``He realizes he's where he's at because of that. He could been on one side of the fence saying it was all him.''

Still, it's funny how no one said Earnhardt won all those championships because he had a strong team. The conversation usually centered on The Intimidator's fearless, aggressive, never-give-an-inch style of racing.

Gordon has all of those same attributes, but perhaps it gets lost because he comes across as such a goody two-shoes away from the car.

``When the car is right, he drives the wheels off it,'' Labonte said. ``He can take a good race car and make it a lot better than the other guys can.''

Gordon doesn't care how he's perceived in the garage.

``I'm not one to go out and say I'm the greatest or I want to be the greatest,'' he said. ``I just want to be part of the greatest team. I'll say that till I'm blue in the face.''