By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002
Jeff Gordon's multicolored No. 24 Chevrolet was a crumpled heap just 66 laps into the race at Dover, Del., last weekend. His crew worked feverishly to get the four-time champion back on the track.
He finished 37th.
Now, it's truly crunch time.
Tabbed as the man to beat four weeks ago, Gordon has lost valuable ground recently in the closest Winston Cup championship in NASCAR history. To remain in contention, Gordon must get his act together today at Kansas Speedway.
"Basically, we have to have a good finish there," said Gordon, who is fifth in the standings, 190 points behind leader Mark Martin with eight races left. "If we don't have a good finish there, it's definitely done. There's still a lot of flip-flopping that can go on, but I think we need to have a strong finish at Kansas to stay in it."
When Gordon ended a 31-race winless streak at Bristol in August, more victories were expected to follow. When he won the next week at Darlington, jumping to second in the standings and 91 behind then-leader Sterling Marlin, many figured Gordon was marching toward title No. 5. Even former Winston Cup champions Bill Elliott and Dale Jarrett said Gordon was the man to beat.
"That just shows what I know," said Jarrett, laughing. "But I don't think by any means you can count Jeff Gordon and his race team out. Certainly, two out of the past three weeks, and even at Loudon, it wasn't a typical race for Jeff and his team. But I wouldn't count them out."
Gordon, however, has failed to post a top-10 finish the past three races. At Richmond, a broken cam shaft relegated him to 40th. He was 14th at New Hampshire. At Dover, a poor qualifying effort put him near the rear of the field, and on Lap 66 he got caught up in Todd Bodine's spin.
"We shouldn't have been back there in all that stuff anyway," Gordon said of the accident-prone drivers typically at the rear of any field. "We were really struggling. We couldn't pass anybody.
"We were just trying to bide our time and make adjustments and get to the end and have the car in one piece, but it didn't work out."
Time is running out.
Kansas is a welcome sight.
Gordon, who has won four of nine inaugural events since joining the circuit in 1993, has a knack for mastering new facilities. He is especially fond of Kansas.
"Last year, the fastest way around the track was along the bottom, but I think we may see an outside groove start to come in this weekend," said Gordon, who starts 10th today. "This facility is top notch. It's one of the best tracks that we go to and they do a great job.
"This place is like a fine wine, it's only going to get better with age."
Will the same be said for Gordon?
His car has not been especially strong on 1.5-mile tracks this season, prompting his team to work overtime at the shop and in the wind tunnel to improve aerodynamics. That should help him today and at Charlotte and Atlanta in October.
"We've got some tracks coming up that we can do some good things at, but we've got to qualify better, and we've got to get up there and really put some pressure on," said Gordon, who has eight top fives and 14 top 10s this season.
"We haven't done that."
Because no one has separated himself from the pack, anything can happen. But Gordon can ill-afford to lose more ground to front-runners Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.
He needs to make his move.
"We're really working hard for this race," Gordon said. "These guys are working their tails off to get our aero package better at these bigger tracks.
"But one thing that I can count on about this team is that they are going to fight until the end. There is absolutely no let-up in these guys."