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Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer

Gordon Holds Own With Anybody

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – What’s your yardstick for measuring the greatest at anything?

Is it factor X, no matter what other argument could be made against it? Is it factor Z, because you can’t compare the achievements of one era to those of another?

Barry Bonds’ career, once it’s over, will carry more than a hint of impurity because of steroid allegations. When he passes Hank Aaron as the top home-run basher of all-time, there’ll be a lingering stigma for generations over whether he or the baseball was more juiced.
Was Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever? Greater than Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell? You can make a case for any one of them.

Four years ago, as he announced the death of Dale Earnhardt here at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR president Mike Helton proclaimed the seven-time champion the sport’s ‘‘greatest driver.’’
While the emotion of the moment, of losing the biggest star of the era, can be understood, Earnhardt matched – but did not surpass – Richard Petty’s mark of seven titles. Earnhardt won 76 times, including the 1998 Daytona 500 – 134 races fewer than Petty, who captured the Daytona 500 a record seven times.

After Sunday’s Daytona 500, the question now is this: With three Daytona 500 victories, four championships and still riding the crest of his career, when it’s all said and done, will Jeff Gordon have left them in his exhaust fumes?

Different times

Petty raced in an era when NASCAR had many more races, and with numerous 100- and 200-mile shows, on its schedule than it does these days. In 1964, his first championship run, Petty competed in 61 events. Three years later, the schedule had been trimmed to 48 races and Petty won a whopping 27 of them. He knocked down wins like they were bowling pins.

Earnhardt never had to tackle more than 31 races in any of his championship seasons. But Earnhardt’s fans can perhaps make a case that the man in black was every bit the equal of Petty.
And then there’s the 33-year-old Gordon , whose 12-year career now tallies 70 victories. He’s already passed a future Hall of Famer, Rusty Wallace, on the all-time wins list, and legends Lee Petty and Junior Johnson. He’s only six more trips to victory lane behind Earnhardt for No. 6 on the list, and then it’s on to Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third.

Petty’s 200 wins are out of reach for anybody, for all time, but capturing three more championships before he’s done is well within Gordon ’s considerable reach. And there’s an extremely good chance he’ll wind up second, passing David Pearson’s 105. Petty has stated innumerable times that Pearson is the best driver he ever saw, so what’s it say about Gordon if he supplants the man ‘‘The King’’ says was No. 1?

‘‘There’s only one guy that will probably exceed David, Bobby and myself and that’s Jeff Gordon,’’ said three-time champion Waltrip, one of the Fox network analysts covering Sunday’s race. ‘‘He’s got the best chance.’’

Stout stuff

Petty won everywhere he raced – on dirt, on road courses, at Daytona and Talladega, and everything in between. Earnhardt feared nothing and was as awesome and intimidating on the biggest tracks as he was the smallest. The only chink in his armor was minimal success on road courses – a ’95 triumph at Sonoma, Calif.

Gordon stands toe to toe with them. He’s won nine times now at Daytona and Talladega, the biggest and scariest of tracks. He’s won on every short track he’s tackled, and he’s been to victory lane eight times on the road courses. He and Yarborough have the distinction of being the only men with five victories in the race that was perhaps the stiffest of challenges, the Southern 500.

That’s stout stuff, and if you can’t give the man that ... well, jealousy isn’t something to be proud of.

‘‘You know, every once in awhile ... we’ll kind of reminisce and talk about some things that we’ve done,’’ Gordon said of himself, team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Robbie Loomis. ‘‘You know, maybe our fourth Brickyard 400 or different things like that.

‘‘You get a little choked up. You know, it’s unbelievable to know that since I met (Hendrick) in, like, May of 1992, it’s been one incredible ride. And who would have ever thought that we would have racked up the things that we have?’’

Nobody. But he’s made a believer out of anybody who doesn’t hate his guts because of his success, and he’s a long, long way from running out of gas.

Penske Finally Makes His Move

CONCORD – Captain, what took you so long?

Seven months ago, teammates Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman locked horns in the final laps of a NASCAR race at Martinsville, Va. They’ve been at odds ever since, each blatantly regarding the other as a teammate in name only.

Until this week, Roger Penske hadn’t done a thing to mend fences, at least not based on the way Newman and Wallace have behaved since October. Penske either didn’t have time to mediate the situation or didn’t care, but Monday the billionaire industrialist known as "The Captain" made his move.
Rather than trying to make a happy little camp of peace and harmony, Penske took a side. He bought out the shares of the team owned by Wallace, who’s retiring as a driver at the end of 2005, and two other minority partners. While the transaction may not have been a slap in Wallace’s face, the message was crystal clear: Newman is the future of Penske Racing South, Wallace its past.

Highs and sighs

Penske and Wallace first teamed up in 1980, and in his NASCAR debut Wallace finished second to Dale Earnhardt at Atlanta. Penske was too involved with Indy-car racing to tackle NASCAR full time until 1991, when he founded a team with Wallace as a co-owner.

For eight years, Wallace was the only horse in the Penske stable, and he has recorded 37 of his 55 career wins in Penske livery. Penske ’s best NASCAR points finish to date came in 1993, courtesy of Wallace.

But Wallace hasn’t fared well as a team player. In the seven seasons since a teammate was first brought on board, Wallace has won only eight times. He saw a 16-year winning streak snapped, and he went 105 races between victories during a dry spell that ended in April 2004 at Martinsville, Va.

Most of the problem has been Wallace’s unwavering insistence on doing things his way. Equal portions of driver feel and sheer guts once generated Sunday magic, and Wallace appeared convinced that his way was the only way.

But as money gushed into the sport in proportion to its ever-increasing popularity, stock car racing was hit by a technology explosion. Newman and his crew chief, Matt Borland, have been the beneficiaries of that, as their engineering degrees allow them to converse on a scientific level that must sound like Chinese to Wallace. The on-track results are obvious. During the three years the drivers have been Cup teammates, Newman’s won more races, 11-1.

Who’s crazy now?

A statement announcing the buyout was filled with the typical boardroom spin. Penske called the transaction “an opportunity to reward” the minority partners “for their many contributions to the growth and success of the company.”

That’s one way to look at it, but at its heart, it was actually the simplest way to rid Penske of in-house turmoil. After retiring as a driver, Wallace had planned to run the show at Penske Racing South – in other words, to do things his way, and Newman could either like it or lump it.

That was going to be a recipe for disaster and Penske must have known it. He knows great driving talent when he sees it. After all, his NASCAR drivers have won 56 times and his open-wheel aces have won the Indianapolis 500 on 13 occasions.

Penske’s not about to let Newman get away; only an idiot would. In Newman’s first three full seasons as a Cup driver, he’s never finished worse than seventh in the points and he’s nowhere near reaching his prime.

Friday, Newman got his two cents’ worth in about Monday’s announcement, and he took the opportunity to quash rumors that he had plans to jump ship.

“I’m happy doing what I’m doing where I’m at,” he said, moments later adding, “I’d be crazy to think about leaving that.”

In retrospect, the only lunacy about this carbureted soap opera was the notion that Penske didn’t know what he was doing all along. There’s no doubt now that “The Captain” had a firm grip on the helm of his ship the entire time.

Gordon Notches A Win He Won't Forget

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The contrast could not have been more striking.

Oct. 24, 2004: On a day when thick fog smothers southern Virginia well into the afternoon, Jimmie Johnson takes the Subway 500 lead from Sterling Marlin with 61 laps to go and speeds to victory at Martinsville Speedway.

Yet there is no celebration. NASCAR officials gather Johnson and all of the Hendrick Motorsports team to tell them a team plane has crashed into a nearby mountainside. All 10 people aboard are killed, including the son and the brother of team owner Rick Hendrick.
Fast forward to April 10, 2005: On a warm, cloudless spring day, another Hendrick driver, Jeff Gordon , rallies from an early three-lap deficit to win here. Hendrick, who could understandably have avoided Martinsville Speedway, pays a visit anyway, and spends the final laps in Gordon ’s pits. Where a win six months earlier was met with tears of shock and sorrow, the damp eyes and tight throats following the Advance Auto Parts 500 were of gratitude, Gordon said.

“When you’ve got a guy like Rick Hendrick that you respect so much and see what he’s gone through, the ups and the downs, for him to poke his head in the (car) window and just say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’ with a tremble in his voice, that impacts you,” he said.

“That tells you how meaningful this was.

“You get so caught up in the moment driving the car and trying to win the race that ... when he poked his head in there, it hit me like a ton of bricks just what this win today means.”

No cakewalk

When a driver has reached a certain level of success, he finds it increasingly difficult to rank his victories. Gordon is one of those. Sunday’s triumph was No. 71 in a career that began with a rookie season in 1993, and it wasn’t until midway through ’94 that he paid his first trip to victory lane.

Short-track races rarely carry the same sense of accomplishment, or paycheck, as the showcase events of Daytona, Indy or Charlotte. But circumstances and human emotions will always bring Sunday’s victory to mind quickly for Gordon , crew chief Robbie Loomis, team members, family and friends.

Perhaps the win wouldn’t have carried the same gravitas had Gordon kicked butt and taken names from the get-go, as he has so many times. Sunday’s race was the furthest thing from a cakewalk, as his problems with a wobbly right-front tire began less than 50 laps into a 500-lap marathon.

Gordon lost two laps when he was forced to pit for new tires, then a third under yellow as Loomis insisted he pit again to cure the problem, not just slap a Band-Aid on it.

A wave of cheers

A rash of early caution periods helped Gordon recapture two of the lost laps. He got the third back shortly after the midway point because of NASCAR’s so-called “lucky dog” rule, which puts the first driver a lap down back on the tail end of the lead lap.

It took him nearly 200 laps to make his way to the front, but once Gordon got around Sterling Marlin with 36 laps to go, the deal was all but sealed. And when he climbed from his car following a post-race burnout, he was met with a wave of cheers he wasn’t expecting. Gordon ’s got a sizeable fan base, but until Kurt Busch came along Gordon was usually greeted with more jeers than cheers – the price of being too handsome, too rich, too talented.

“It feels good. For years I’ve heard a mixture of boos and cheers. I’ve seen a lot of gestures and heard a lot of things – the good and the bad,” Gordon said. “I didn’t know if the cheers came because I came from three laps down and won the race or if it was in their minds because of the tragic thing that happened here.”

In truth, it was probably both, and all the more reason that Jeff Gordon won’t soon forget this particular victory.

Charlotte Deserves NASCAR Hall

CHARLOTTE – Tens of thousands of people strolled up and down Tryon Street on Saturday, just as they had the previous two days, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of the 600 Festival. Free concerts by Boyz II Men, Styx, Charlie Daniels, 3 Doors Down and Jo Dee Messina brought the curtain down on each night’s activities.

Those three days are capped tonight by the reason the 600 Festival exists at all: the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Dozens of race cars were on hand and their drivers in attendance to sign autographs during breaks in the action at the track.

And everywhere you looked, people’s clothing was adorned with stickers or pins that read, “Racing was built here. Racing belongs here.” That’s the slogan of the city’s campaign to land NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, with final bids from interested cities due Tuesday.

With Sharpie pens in hand, fans lined up to autograph a race car touting the advertising pitch. Among the squiggly signings was a blunt message meant to express the city’s feelings in the event Charlotte doesn’t win the bidding: "EAT THIS NASCAR."

That’s typical of the intensity the Queen City harbors when it comes to stock car racing. Charlotte wants this thing something fierce, and rightfully so.

Who’s got the cards?

Charlotte is in competition with four other cities – Daytona Beach, Fla.; Kansas City, Kan.; Richmond, Va., and Atlanta – for the Hall of Fame. Each has hired architects to draw up plans for NASCAR scrutiny. They’ve lined up lobbyists from within the sport to make their pitch, and they’ve sought the promise of financial assistance from their state and local governments.

Left to the fans, whom NASCAR routinely ignores, the battle would appear to be a three-way shootout. A USA Today online poll of 13,000 voters had Charlotte (37 percent) leading Daytona (28 percent) and Kansas City (21 percent) as of Saturday afternoon. More than 26,000 votes have also been cast at thatsracin.com, with Kansas City edging Charlotte, 45-44, and Daytona Beach a distant third at 8 percent.

A case can be made for all five, but some more than others. Kansas City’s the most centrally located. Atlanta's easily accessible from anywhere and has plenty of tourists and convention trade. Richmond’s on the heavily populated East Coast. Daytona Beach has its plusses, as it is only an hour from tourist-crazed Orlando and it's the home of NASCAR. Most important, the France family, which owns NASCAR and its parents company, will cast the deciding votes.

But Charlotte, in my opinion, holds a straight flush – but not an unbeatable royal flush – of a hand.

Charlotte ’s the nucleus

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio, where the league that was the precursor of the National Football League was founded. Cooperstown, N.Y., is believed to be the birthplace of baseball, which explains why the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is there. Basketball was invented in Springfield, Mass., and that’s where the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is located.

Daytona Beach can make a similar claim based on NASCAR’s founding there in December 1948. But its chances for a NASCAR Hall of Fame may have been damaged when Florida's legislature wouldn’t OK $30 million in tax revenue to help pay for the hall.

First on Charlotte ’s list of pros is the fact that the first "Strictly Stock" race ever sanctioned by NASCAR took place here June 19, 1949. Jim Roper read about the race in the "Smilin’ Jack" comic strip, and drove from Great Bend, Kan., to participate. He won the $2,000 first prize after Glenn Dunnaway was disqualified for using springs that weren’t strictly stock.

Since then, this has become the home of NASCAR racing. Every top NASCAR team is located within an hour of metro Charlotte.

NASCAR and the Frances have reaped billions because of the efforts and skill of the people within the sport who live and work here.
Also consider that the Carolinas have lost five races in the last decade; two each at North Wilkesboro and Rockingham and one at Darlington, S.C.

NASCAR, though, can have it all by choosing Charlotte as the home of its Hall of Fame. It gets rich – er, richer – with ticket sales at the Hall of Fame, especially if the induction ceremonies are tied to the all-star race that has been held here 20 times in its 21-year history. It can heal some of the scarring left by the loss of races in the Carolinas. It pays tribute to Jim Roper and the other men who put their lives on the line in the first NASCAR race.

Now it’s up to NASCAR to do the right thing and honor Charlotte in the manner it deserves.

Gordon 's Shortfall Is Stunning

In a sport where the world can turn upside down in the blink of an eye, there are still things that defy belief.

It doesn’t seem possible that anyone could ever win 10 races in a row, as Richard Petty did in 1967.

It’s almost inconceivable that Ricky Rudd hasn’t missed a day of work since beginning a streak of 778 consecutive starts on Jan. 11, 1981, at Riverside, Calif.

And can this be right? Jeff Gordon won’t even finish in the top 10 in this year’s Nextel Cup points race – something that hasn’t happened since his rookie season of 1993?

But these are all cold, hard facts. It’s just that reality sometimes just doesn’t seem “real,” if you get my drift.
Saturday night’s Chevy Rock and Roll 400 settled the 10 qualifiers who’ll begin a 10-race journey toward the title a week from today in Loudon, N.H.

Going into Richmond, Va., Gordon was on the outside looking in, but still had a better-than-average shot at salvaging a berth.
It was obvious early on, however, that Gordon was enduring yet another episode as Bill Murray’s character from “Groundhog Day,” where every day is a rerun of the one that preceded it.

Since the race at Richmond in May, Gordon ’s cars have betrayed him. They tease him with obedience for brief spurts of a race, then torment him ’til the finish and haunt him throughout the ensuing week.
It happened again Saturday night, when the Dupont Chevrolet started off as Gordon had hoped it would. He was solidly in the top 10 until the car started wandering off on its own, and no matter what remedies crew chief Robbie Loomis threw at it, nothing worked.

Gordon tumbled steadily toward the back and was 28th at the halfway point.

Minutes later, Gordon ’s slim shot at a fifth title came to a jarring halt.
Johnny Sauter, who’s prone to driving over his head, cut Gordon off exiting a turn and Gordon caromed off the backstretch wall.

The damage didn’t knock him out for the night, but it was enough to ruin the razor-thin chance he had left to be part of the Chase. The outcome guaranteed that Gordon , a four-time NASCAR champion, won’t be a top-10 points finisher for the first time since his rookie season of 1993.

“It was going to be a long night no matter what,” he said afterward. “I don’t think I had a car capable of getting in it anyway.”

Roush dominates

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Roush Racing, which finished win, place and show Saturday night. Kurt Busch, the reigning Nextel Cup champion, led the sweep over teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, and along with Mark Martin and Carl Edwards, the Roush quintet will comprise half of the Chase field.

That’s an awesome achievement for Jack Roush, a man whom few NASCAR veterans believed could succeed when he came into the sport in 1988. Roush’s racing background was in drag and sports car racing, and most know-it-alls figured he’d fall flat on his face.

Instead, Roush has persevered and excelled. Busch’s win was No. 85 all-time for Roush’s Nextel Cup program, and he and Kenseth have earned the last two driver’s titles. Any of the Roush drivers seem capable of extending the streak to three when the season ends Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.

That possibility seems a strong one – unlike the brutal reality that Gordon is locked out. That one’s going to take a long time to sink in.