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Reading each other's minds

Crew chief Robbie Loomis and driver Jeff Gordon finally have developed the kind of personal chemistry that leads to victories.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 18, 2001


Robbie Loomis can just about tell what's wrong with a race car from the way it sounds, but it didn't do the No. 24 Chevrolet any good until Loomis turned that same sensitive ear toward the driver.

Jeff Gordon's tone said everything.

"There's more to be learned from the things that aren't said than the things that are," Loomis said. "When you talk to someone who's just been to an adventure park, you can tell from their voice which ride was the most exciting."

In their second season together, Loomis and Gordon finally have developed the personal chemistry needed to produce championship results. Getting there had much more to do with mannerisms and inflections than air pressure and chassis adjustments.

Gordon, who leads the standings by 194 points over Ricky Rudd, has won a series-high five races this season and will look to win his third straight Sunday in the Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

"It took time to get to know each other," said Loomis, who left after more than a decade at Petty Enterprises to work with Gordon. "Now that we've been together for a while I can tell in his voice how good or how bad the car is. Even if he's telling me it's good, I can tell how good, and whether we need to keep working on it."

Last season, it was usually a question of how bad.

Gordon, who won three championships and 47 races in seven seasons with crew chief Ray Evernham, was ninth in the 2000 Winston Cup standings, his lowest position since finishing 14th as a rookie in 1993. Even his three victories signified a slide, snapping his string of five seasons with seven or more wins.

Many blamed Loomis.

"I remember the first race when people were saying that Robbie was ruining Jeff's career," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "I put my arm around him and told him, "I get most of that hate mail. Don't feel bad about it. We've just got to keep digging.' "

Loomis heard the jeers, especially from fans who lined the fences of the Winston Cup garage area at tracks. Though he claims never to have worried about the outside criticism, Gordon knew such scrutiny was in store for whoever replaced Evernham.

"Nobody wanted this job," Gordon said. "There's a lot of positive things, but then you look at the negative side and there's probably more. The media and fans could just tear you apart if you didn't live up to (past accomplishments). ... But Robbie saw this was an opportunity for him to not only shine, but to be a part of something special."

For Loomis, the hardest part about joining Hendrick Motorsports was not the pressure, but the sadness he felt leaving the Pettys, who made him feel like part of the family.

"I felt like we were still building and going forward at Petty Enterprises, but something inside said I needed to do this," said Loomis, who served as crew chief for No. 43 for nine seasons, including Richard Petty's farewell tour in 1992.

"Everybody says that about Ray and the accomplishments they had here, but I knew about Hendrick Motorsports before Jeff and Ray came along. ... I knew there was more to it than two guys."

Much of Gordon's pit crew was new in 2000 -- five members of the Rainbow Warriors left for Dale Jarrett's No. 88 team -- making the transition to a new crew chief even tougher. Three races into 2000, Loomis hit an all-time low.

Gordon qualified 10th at Las Vegas but wrecked with Dale Earnhardt during practice. When the race started, No. 24 went backward, quickly.

"At one point in the race we were running about 35th," said Loomis, whose laid-back personality belies an intense desire to win. "We hadn't been communicating that long and it was hard to understand Jeff to know how bad the car was."

Gordon finished 28th, the second of nine races in which he placed 23rd or worse last season. Realizing that his relationship with Loomis would be different than with Evernham, Gordon spent more time in the shop working with his new teammates, consoling and encouraging.

While he was at it, relationships blossomed.

Gordon's third victory of the season, at Richmond in September, marked a turning point as teamwork, communication and great pit stops throughout the race turned a so-so car into a winner.

Just like old times.

This season, Loomis confidently makes decisions based on the feedback Gordon gives him. But if Loomis were prone to panic, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway would have been a perfect opportunity. Gordon was in ninth place when debris brought out a caution flag 28 laps from the finish, allowing leaders to make final pit stops.

A week earlier, Loomis' decision to change four tires cost Gordon a possible victory at Pocono. At Indy, he called for right-side tires only, gas and one round of wedge. Eleven seconds later, Gordon was the first to leave pit road. He took the race lead on the restart and pulled away to his third victory in the race's eight-year history.

"Everybody thinks we're in the racing business, but we're really not," Loomis said. "We're in the people business. It's all about people and how they work together."

ROBBIE LOOMIS

POSITION: Crew chief, No. 24 Chevrolet.

AGE: 37.

HOMETOWN: Forest City.

RESIDES: Charlotte, N.C.

NOTES: Loomis has collaborated with some of the most-recognized names in NASCAR. He worked with the late Alan Kulwicki in the minor leagues before finding a home with the legendary Petty family. ... In 11 years at Petty Enterprises, he served as Winston Cup crew chief for nine seasons with the No. 43 team, including Richard Petty's final two seasons as a driver in 1992. ... He got his first win with driver Bobby Hamilton at Phoenix in 1996, also winning with Hamilton at Rockingham in 1997 and John Andretti at Martinsville in 1999. ... He left Petty Enterprises for Hendrick Motorsports in 2000. ... In his 11th season, he has 11 career victories.

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