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Home cooking warms Gordon

He enjoys fans who cheer him and a track where he has won three times. Can he do it again?

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

INDIANAPOLIS -- This is the one.

Four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon has gone 28 races without winning, the longest streak of his career since his first win at Charlotte in May 1994. But Gordon has a certain magic at the Brickyard 400. Surely he'll win today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Won't he?

"If there's any place I could pick to win my first race of this year it would be right here. Who wouldn't want that?" said Gordon, who has three Brickyard wins in the race's eight years. "That would do a lot for our team. It would create a huge momentum change and we would love to have that."

It would be historic.

Gordon would be the fourth driver with that many victories at the fabled 2.5-mile speedway, joining four-time Indianapolis 500 winners A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser. He also would join Cale Yarborough as the only Winston Cup drivers to win on their birthdays.

Gordon turns 31 today. "For me to compare myself to an Indy 500 winner as a Brickyard 400 winner is kind of difficult," said Gordon, who grew up in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., racing midgets and sprint cars. "I'm just thrilled to say I've won three of these races. I hope that someday I'll get the opportunity to say that I'm a four-time winner. But even if I am, I don't think I'll put myself in the same category as those guys."

Indy has been good to Gordon. He has three poles and three wins, including the inaugural Brickyard in 1994, plus two more top-five runs. This is one of two tracks, along with the road course near his hometown of Vallejo, Calif., that Gordon considers a home track. Accordingly, Gordon is a fan favorite with race-savvy Midwesterners who pack the grandstands.

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "I've got so much support here in Indiana from so many. It's refreshing to come here and hear a lot more cheers than boos. That to me is not pressure, it's incentive. But on the other side, there is going to be a lot of pressure for us to perform. The people here expect us to do well."

So does Gordon.

Last year, he started 27th, the farthest back a Brickyard winner has come. Coming from the rear of the field at IMS, where passing is difficult, was a huge confidence boost for the team on its way to Gordon's fourth Winston Cup title.

In pursuit of No. 5, Gordon is fourth in points, 188 behind leader Sterling Marlin, with two runner-up and 11 top-10 finishes. But Gordon has been stuck on 58 career victories since winning at Kansas in September 2001, and it's starting to bug him. He is especially tired of people blaming his personal life -- he is divorcing his wife of seven years, Brooke -- for his winless streak.

"It is frustrating when people want to point to your personal life as the distraction that's keeping you out of Victory Lane," he said. "To go out there and say, "Hey, that wasn't it,' that would be nice."

His peers know he still is a threat.

"We'd like to see him go another 30 or 40," said two-time Brickyard winner Dale Jarrett, smiling. "He's the most talented race driver out here. It just goes to show how important it is to have all the aspects of the team working. They have all the resources, they have the guy with the most talent, and yet they've been on this streak where they can't put it all together on one day."

So, could Gordon be an underdog? Perhaps.

He tested so poorly here last month that he did not bring either test car back this weekend. He was slow in Friday's practice. He qualified 21st. Gordon had just finished the first of two qualifying laps Saturday when he felt something break. In his first bit of good luck all weekend, it turned out to be a rear gear, not the engine.

"Even though we haven't won this year, we all know what we're capable of and that we can win on any given Sunday," he said. "Every time we've had a car capable of winning we haven't had everything go right for us. You look at it as a big thing because we haven't won, but I look at it as just little tiny things that have kept us out of Victory Lane."

Gordon said he believes his first win is just around the corner, and when it comes, several more will follow. His team, he said, remains strong and just needs a jump-start.

What better place than Indy?

"There is something about this place, a love and passion I have for it," he said. "I love coming here and hearing the reception of the fans. It's just a great place to race. There's a lot of things that inspire us as a team to come here and do well. We seem to dig a little deeper and pull a little bit more out of ourselves when we come here."

Maybe, this is the one.

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