By BRANT JAMES, Times wires
Published October 30, 2004
HAMPTON, Ga. - Jeff Gordon has won four Cup championships and 69 races since 1992. Focus and desire have not been a problem.
With his Hendrick Motorsports teammates resolved that a championship would be the most fitting tribute to the 10 killed in a team plane crash Sunday, Gordon is determined to get a fifth.
"I have never been so inspired and driven in my life," Gordon said in the often emotional news conference Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "We want it bad no matter what. ... We work very hard for it, but I think there is something that's going to allow us to dig a little deeper to try to make a difference, whether it be for the families that are grieving, to try to ease their pain some, or for those that are looking down on us.
"I think that instead of this being something that's a negative, we're going to take something and make something positive out of it and try to do our jobs better than we ever have before."
With four races left, Gordon is the only Hendrick driver in a position to win a title, entering Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 in second place, 96 points behind Kurt Busch.
SUPPORT: The garage area was sober and quiet on Friday morning, the first day of on-track activity since the plane crash. Several teams wore their emotions on their wrists, or their heads.
Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew members wore black caps with a checkered-flag logo once used by Hendrick Motorsports, and the blue wrist bands symbolic of the Hendrick Bone Marrow Foundation were more prevalent.
"The whole Hendrick camp wore 3 hats at Rockingham after Dale Earnhardt got killed," said Tony Eury, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief. "(Team-owner Teresa Earnhardt) asked us to wear (flag hats) to support Hendrick just like Hendrick supported us."
Ray Evernham, who won three championships at Hendrick as Gordon's crew chief, ordered the 9 and 19 on the Dodges of Kasey Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield, respectively, be black for the rest of the season. Also, the tail number of the plane, 501RH, will be affixed to the cars' rear wheel wells.
AND AGAIN: Ryan Newman won his fourth straight pole at Atlanta, third in a row and eighth this season, covering the 1.54-mile track at 191.575 mph. Lakeland's Joe Nemechek will start second, with Elliott Sadler third.
Ricky Rudd required the fifth and final provisional to make the 43-car field and keep his record 749 race start streak intact. Defending series champion Matt Kenseth, former champ Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin and Michael Waltrip failed to qualify on time as 58 cars made attempts.
BUSCH: Mike Bliss won the pole for the Aaron's 312 at Atlanta.
Bliss posted a speed of 188.867 mph to edge series points leader Martin Truex, who earned a spot on the outside of the front row with a speed of 188.642. Bliss won his third pole of the year.
"The plain and simple fact of Atlanta is this track is fast, especially in qualifying," he said. "The surface is so smooth and grippy. It develops several different racing grooves and lets the driver move the car all over the track to find the fastest line."
The pole could benefit Bliss, who still does not know if he has a job next season at Joe Gibbs Racing. The 31-year-old could be re-signed or replaced with a younger driver, despite winning his first race two weeks ago at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch also eclipsed 188 - giving Chevrolet the top four spots for today's race - but it was only good enough for the second row.
SPARK PLUGS: Bobby Rice,a friend and adviser of Rick Hendrick, will temporarily assume daily operations of the team. ... Tony Stewart's helicopter pilot, 38-year-old Scott Lathram, was on the Hendrick plane because he was to present Stewart with an award from a military-support organization. Lathram's Kentucky-based Army Reserve unit deployed to Iraq on Tuesday. John Bickford, Gordon's stepfather and business manager, would have been on the Hendrick plane if not for a lingering cold, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Felix Sabates, who has part ownership of a Cup team with Chip Ganassi, had considered taking the vacant seat until he was told by Ganassi other planes had diverted to Danville, Va. ... With four races left, Eury already has won the Crew Chief of the Year award. He has been voted crew chief of the week nine times. Eury received a champion's ring and a check of $10,000, which will be split between the Dale Earnhardt Foundation and the Hendrick Marrow Program.