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Gordon can feel magic returning

Past week buoys the onetime wonder boy.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001


CONCORD, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon has splashed through a lot of puddles the past two weeks.

He has seen a lot of rain fall and even dodged a couple of lightning bolts while running The Winston and qualifying for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

But he thinks that somewhere in the downpours that caused the Winston Cup all-star race to drag on until nearly 1 a.m. Sunday and forced Thursday's 600 pole qualifying session to be postponed for more than 21/2 hours, he has seen a spark that could fuel a run to another Winston Cup title. Gordon won The Winston and qualified on the outside pole for the 600. "This team has shown a lot of strength just in their consistency," said Gordon, second in the standings, 14 points behind Dale Jarrett. "The runs that we've had, the laps that we've led, the races we did win ... there's no doubt in my mind, if we get a spark like this Winston to go on, we can really go and get to the next level. ... The magic is not there yet, but I think we're on the verge of it."

Three years ago, Gordon seemed on the verge of making the Winston Cup circuit his playground.

He earned 33 of 53 career victories between 1996 and 1998 and won two of his three points titles during that time. At 27, Gordon looked poised to threaten Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty's record of seven Winston Cup championships.

In 1998 Gordon won 13 races, tying Petty for the modern-era season total. He tied another record by winning four races in a row.

But beginning in 1999, Gordon no longer was unbeatable. He would show up at races as one of the favorites, not the favorite.

Whatever it was that had carried him to the top of the Winston Cup mountain faded. Or disappeared. He went from the 13-win season to 11 points wins over the next three years -- seven in 1999, three in 2000. Gordon and his No. 24 Chevrolet suddenly were normal.

"I think the competition is tougher than it's ever been," Gordon said. "So it's hard to come out and say in order to get back where we were, we have to win 13 races. I think that this team is, in some ways, stronger than it's ever been."

Gordon's team has done much self-examination the past two seasons. In 1999 it lost longtime crew chief Ray Evernham when he left to take over Dodge's entries into Winston Cup. In came Robbie Loomis, and the team finished ninth in the points standings last season, the worst Gordon had finished since his rookie season, 1993, when he was 14th.

"I think because of what we had to go through last year, maybe these guys dig that much deeper inside themselves," said Gordon, who has won one points race and been in the top five six other times this year. "It's certainly showing this year.

"So in some ways I think we're better than we've ever been. Maybe the win column doesn't show that, but who knows."

Lately Gordon has been one of the best drivers on the circuit.

He has rebounded from finishing 30th at Daytona and 40th at Darlington to finish second in the past two points races and win The Winston. In a move he hopes proves to be a good omen, Gordon wrecked on the first lap of The Winston but was allowed to use his backup car and start from the back of the field because rain didn't allow the first lap to be completed.

"If you get on a streak and get some confidence and momentum going, there's no doubt it can happen," Gordon said. Results are one thing, but the most significant way to tell that Gordon's fortunes are changing is to look at him. The smile is back. It's finally fun to go to the track and know his car is going to be ready and the results probably are going to be good.

"It's a lot of fun right now," Gordon said. "I'm enjoying myself a lot, and that usually means I have great race cars. I think things are going real well."

Jeff Gordon

AGE: 29.

RESIDES: Vallejo, Calif.

HT/WT: 5-7, 150.

WIFE: Brooke.

CHILDREN: None.

CAR: No. 24, Chevrolet.

COCA-COLA 600 STARTING POSITION: 2nd.

CAREER COCA-COLA 600 STARTS: 8.

BEST COCA-COLA 600 FINISH: 1st (1994, 1997, 1998).

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