The four-time Winston Cup champion is winless in his past 25 races and drops two spots to fifth in the point standings.
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002
DAYTONA BEACH -- Jeff Gordon has made himself synonymous with the No. 24, but lately he has found himself identified with the number for all the wrong reasons.
The Chevrolet driver entered Saturday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway riding a 24-race winless streak, his longest since his first Winston Cup victory in 1994. With three laps to go, 24 was Gordon's rank.
A second major wreck ended the race under caution with one of its top drivers unable to finish on the lead lap. Gordon finished 22nd, extending the streak to 25, all the more frustration for No. 24.
"It's been strange," he said. "We've got the race car, we've got the race team, we've got everything there is. We just don't have the luck, and as long as we don't have the luck, we're not going to be pulling into Victory Lane."
Gordon's misfortune Saturday was a flat left rear tire on the 29th lap, discovered during the last lap of a mandatory four-lap caution the teams agreed to after not being able to practice Friday because of rain. Gordon, who led for six laps early in the race, felt something was wrong but didn't recognize the problem until fellow Chevrolet driver Jeff Green saw the flat and radioed Gordon's team. They opted to pit immediately rather than risk a wreck. Gordon, however, went in as the green flag was waved and came out without a drafting partner. He was soon lapped by the leaders.
Had he been able to work his way back onto the lead lap, the next caution would have brought him up with the rest of the pack, and he was able to get past every car except leader Michael Waltrip before drifting back.
"Nobody's going to give us a break, and I don't blame them," said Gordon, who also said a bent fender brace in front of the left front tire caused an extended pit stop that also slowed his car. "It's pretty hard to get a lap back, and they're not going to just give it to us."
If any track was fit to end Gordon's drought, it seemed to be Daytona, where he won the first night race in 1998 and has three other victories as part of 11 top-10 finishes in 19 appearances. He started the race in third position, with the added incentive of being one of five drivers eligible for a $1-million bonus with a victory.
Despite the winless streak, which dates to last season, Gordon has remained near the top of the Winston Cup point standings, though Saturday's finish dropped him from third to fifth.
If nothing else, the four-time series champion is trying to keep a sense of humor about his ability to finish anywhere but first. His night ended in strange fashion as fans in Turn 2, angry the race was ending under caution instead of a red flag and restart, littered the track with seat cushions and debris. Gordon found a silver lining in that.
"That was cool -- it was all Pepsi stuff," the 30-year-old said with a nod to his primary sponsor for this race, which gave away the cushions as part of a promotion.
Asked what it would take to get out of his current rut, Gordon said it comes down to luck, so it might be as simple as things clicking when NASCAR changes channels.
"I think I'm waiting for NBC to start its coverage," he said.