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Here he is, the face of NASCAR

Love him or hate him, you definitely know him. One thing is for sure, Jeff Gordon is back on top.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 7, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- In the life of Jeff Gordon, where NASCAR fans either love or loathe you, you're bound to get recognized from time to time.

But it's where Gordon gets noticed and asked for autographs and handshakes and pictures that often surprises the three-time Winston Cup champion.

Bathrooms. Restaurants. Interstate highways?

"It still amazes me to this day that I can be driving along ... and another car drives by me at a normal pace," he said. "Then all of a sudden I see brake lights. I know right then and I think, "How the heck did that person just glance over and know that it was me sitting there?'

"That still blows me away to this day." Gordon's popularity is due not only to his success on the track -- 55 career wins -- but an increasing visibility away from it.

When Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, Gordon inherited the Intimidator's well-established role as the face of NASCAR in mainstream America.

The Winston Cup points leader, who starts fifth in tonight's Pepsi 400, is viewed as the primary authority and spokesman on issues in the Winston Cup garage, appearing on television shows like Larry King Live and Today to discuss safety in the wake of Earnhardt's crash.

"I heard rumors that another executive with a broadcasting company was watching a show that Jeff was on and absolutely loved him on it," said Jon Edwards, an account representative for DuPont who handles Gordon's media relations. "He called the next day to see if Jeff could appear on another network. They were so impressed with how he carried himself and how well he portrays and also how he answers questions. He's intelligent, articulate, quotable."

Between 30 and 40 requests -- more if he wins the weekend before -- are faxed, e-mailed and phoned in to Edwards and staff each week.

"When you're successful and you're well-spoken, you're going to be asked to talk a lot," said Jeff Burton, who also has been outspoken on safety issues. "You're going to be asked to represent the sport. He does a great job of doing those two things."

That he leads the standings at the halfway mark of the season and has been the most successful driver in the past five years doesn't hurt either.

Gordon nabbed the points lead from Dale Jarrett after his victory in the Kmart 400 at Michigan International Speedway and hasn't relinquished it in the two races since.

He's ahead of Jarrett by 126 points, is tied for the series lead with three victories and leads the series with 11 top fives this season.

"It's so early that right now the biggest threat is ourselves and just making sure that we can stay consistent," said Gordon, a two-time winner of the Pepsi 400 (1995, '98). "I think what will happen is that we'll get a better idea of who is a threat as the year goes on."

Who's to say he's wrong?

Gordon won three Cup titles and 40 races from 1995-98.

But his 1999 and 2000 seasons weren't as glamorous in part because his crew chief of eight seasons, Ray Evernham, left Hendrick Motorsports to spearhead Dodge's return to Winston Cup racing in 1999.

Brian Whitesell took over as interim crew chief for the remainder of that season until Robbie Loomis was hired away from Petty Enterprises before the start of the 2000 season.

Gordon finished ninth in the standings, his worst finish since his rookie season in 1993, and won three races.

"It's hard to replace the time it takes to get to know one another," Loomis said. "That's why people don't go out and get married after six months. You have to have a good feeling for one another."

Loomis fostered those good vibes by gaining insight through occasional conversations with Gordon's wife, Brooke. It was the same practice he employed while working as crew chief for John Andretti.

"You can talk to one individual and learn certain elements about him," Loomis said. "Through small conversations with Brooke I could sometimes get feelings about how the driver feels about different things."

Throughout the slump many believed Gordon could, and would, return to championship status.

"I knew last year that this year they'd be really good because they were getting better and better as the year went on," 2000 Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte said. "You just knew that they were going to be pretty good because their communication was getting better throughout the season."

Gordon credits Earnhardt for much of his success on the track. The Pepsi 400 will be the first Daytona race since Earnhardt's death.

"There's no doubt I learned a lot from him, especially at Daytona and Talladega," said Gordon, who has won six career races at the two tracks where Earnhardt won 13 times. "When you go to a place like Talladega and Daytona, he's on your mind because you know that he was the best that there ever was there, the best that I'll ever race against."

PEPSI 400

WHEN: 8 tonight.

WHERE: Daytona International Speedway (2.5 miles).

TV: Ch. 8.

2001 POLE WINNER: Sterling Marlin.

2000 RACE WINNER: Jeff Burton.

WEATHER: Tonight's forecast calls for isolated thunderstorms in Daytona Beach with a 40 percent chance of precipitation and a low of 73.

TICKETS: (904) 253-7223 or www.daytonaintlspeedway.com.

DIRECTIONS: Follow Interstate 4 east to the I-95 North exit on the left toward Jacksonville. Merge onto the I-95 North exit and follow to the U.S. Highway 92 exit (No. 87) toward DeLand/Daytona Beach. Merge onto U.S. 92 East until you see the speedway.

Five drivers to watch

DALE EARNHARDT JR.

CAR: No. 8 Chevrolet.

STARTING: 13th (181.906 mph).

BEST PEPSI 400 FINISH: 35th last year (his only Pepsi 400).

THE SKINNY: What better tribute can the son give the father than to win today? Only a victory at the Daytona 500 next year would be more memorable. Expect Junior to drive with purpose and focus.

KEVIN HARVICK

CAR: No. 29 Chevrolet.

STARTING: 10th (182.109).

BEST PEPSI 400 FINISH: This is his first.

THE SKINNY: Driving two circuits full time while replacing a legend might seem a difficult task for anyone, much less a Winston Cup rookie, but Harvick is pulling it off. The 25-year-old is the Busch series points leader and appears destined for greatness.

STERLING MARLIN

CAR: No. 40 Dodge.

STARTING: First (183.778).

BEST PEPSI 400 FINISH: First, 1996.

THE SKINNY: The leader of the Dodge brigade, all he'll see in his mirrors when he takes the green flag are fellow Dodges: Ward Burton qualified second, Stacy Compton third and Casey Atwood fourth. A two-time Daytona 500 champion, he is the favorite.

RUSTY WALLACE

CAR: No. 2 Ford.

STARTING: 24th (181.430).

BEST PEPSI 400 FINISH: Third, 2000.

THE SKINNY: Chevrolet and Dodge appear to have the inside track on restrictor-plate racing this year, meaning the Ford-driving Wallace figures to miss the victory stand at Daytona again. In a combined 36 Daytona 500s and Pepsi 400s, Wallace's best result came in his past two races here, third.

MICHAEL WALTRIP

CAR: No. 15 Chevrolet.

STARTING: 22nd (181.459).

BEST PEPSI 400 FINISH: Sixth, 1991.

THE SKINNY: After his amazing Daytona 500 win, Waltrip has been awful. Of drivers who have won races this year, none is worse than 18th in the standings except him. Perhaps a return to Daytona and the memory of the victory that broke his 462-race career winless streak will rekindle his driving skills.

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