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Gordon right: His lead isn't safe yet

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


This is what Jeff Gordon was talking about.

For weeks, Gordon insisted the Winston Cup championship chase was not over. All it would take, he warned, was one bad finish for his comfortable points lead to turn precarious.

Just like that.

An early wreck relegated Gordon to 36th place in the Monte Carlo 400 Saturday at Richmond, allowing opportunistic winner Ricky Rudd to pick up 120 points in the standings. With 10 races left, Gordon leads Rudd by 222. "He will win the championship if he doesn't have any problems from here on out," Rudd said of Gordon. "But I don't know anybody who can say that they're not going to have any problems the rest of the season. So, in that respect, we're probably still in it."

Gordon started from the pole, but contact with Sterling Marlin sent his No. 24 Chevrolet into the wall backward, causing heavy damage. After lengthy repairs, Gordon returned to the track minus his rear bumper and most of his deck lid, 109 laps down.

Rudd can sympathize.

A month ago, he trailed Gordon by just 30 points. But mechanical problems caused him to finish 39th at Indianapolis and, two weeks later, 42nd at Michigan. Now that Gordon has experienced some bad luck, Rudd is back in the hunt.

But the title is Gordon's to lose.

"As far as running him down in the true sense of the word, making points up every week and passing him, that won't happen," Rudd said. "Situations like (Saturday night) and mechanical breakdowns, will that keep us in this race? It very well could be.

"We've got 10 races left and the intensity level has just been stepped up tremendously. I would not want to be sitting in (Gordon's) position thinking I've got a comfortable lead for the championship when you've got intense races like we've been seeing here lately."

MARK YOUR CALENDARS: As expected, Homestead-Miami Speedway will be the site of the 2002 Winston Cup season finale, replacing Atlanta in the schedule released Monday by NASCAR.

The season-ending race had been at Atlanta Motor Speedway since 1987, but track officials requested a change because the mid-November event has been plagued in recent years by rain and cold temperatures. Atlanta's fall date was moved to Oct. 27.

"We came to the conclusion that more consistent weather outweighed the fact that we won't have the championship (decider), which history says we only get every three or four years anyway," AMS president Ed Clark said.

No other major changes were made to the 36-race schedule. The 2002 Busch Grand National slate also was released.

KEEPING HIS COOL: Rudd credited the mellowing effects of age for his trip to Victory Lane.

A reformed hothead, Rudd led with 17 laps left when aggressive rookie Kevin Harvick nearly spun him into the wall in a fight for the lead. Rudd saved his car, tracked Harvick down and bumped him from behind to regain the lead.

"You can race each other and use a little class about it, or you can kind of be like a bull in a china closet and just run over people," said Rudd, who turns 45 on Wednesday. "(Harvick) sort of chooses to do the second. ... What I gave him was a clean love-tap. What he gave me was a cheap shot trying to wreck me, so there is a difference."

BONUS BOYS: The top five finishers -- Rudd, Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace -- will be eligible for a $1-million bonus in October at Talladega.

STREAK SNAPPED: Brett Bodine's string of 31 races without a DNF was snapped Saturday when the No. 11 Ford retired after Lap 100 because of engine trouble. He finished 43rd. FINE TIME: Expect NASCAR to announce punishments today for BGN drivers Greg Biffle and Jay Sauter, who tangled in Friday's race at Richmond. On Lap 185 of 250, Sauter turned his No. 43 Chevrolet into Biffle's No. 60 Ford, perhaps in retaliation for an earlier incident. Both went into the wall, and Biffle climbed out of his car to throw a punch through Sauter's window.

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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