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Road mapped out for Gordon win at Sears Point

Jun 18, 2002 11:43 AM

Before the whole racing world starts feeling sorry for defending four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon because he hasn’t won a race yet this season and his personal life is being played out in the papers, a look at the season standings would put things into proper perspective.

With his fifth place finish last week at Michigan, Gordon finds himself in second place only 110 points behind Sterling Marlin with 21 races to go. What is so remarkable about Gordon this season is that he hasn’t dominated a single race and has transformed himself into a cagey veteran.

The most anti-Gordon fans in the Deep South have even found a new respect for Gordon because he no longer is the driver to beat week in and out, but he’s compiling points and showing his driving skills in so many other facets other than winning.

In 1996, the year after he won his first Winston Cup title, Gordon dominated the season winning 10 races but finished second in the points chase to Terry Labonte. Texas Terry only won two races that season, but stayed out of trouble and compiled precious points. Gordon has certainly taken a page out of Labonte’s book and is in prime position to capture his fifth championship.

The winless streak for Gordon is likely to end this week. He has been installed as a 3-2 favorite, which comes as no surprise considering the race is at Sears Point in the beautiful wine country of Sonoma, Calif.

NASCAR has never seen a driver dominate the road courses like Gordon. In the last seven of nine Winston Cup road course events, including Watkins Glen, Gordon has visited the winners circle. That type of dominance is something that not even Formula-1’s Michael Schumacher can comprehend.

This is a Phil Jackson-like plateau of dominance.

How it will play out this season considering Gordon’s car hasn’t been dominant in any race will be interesting. Obviously, he needs the horsepower to give him that extra edge, but his road course driving skills should make up for whatever he’s lacking in car performance.

What will also unfold is Gordon’s pride and desire for continuous supremacy on the road courses. Despite appearing to be content for Top 10 finishes, he’ll go for it all this week because now his legacy is on the line.

In last year’s race, Tony Stewart (5-1) took advantage of a mistake made by Gordon downshifting around the classic hair-pin turn. Stewart went on to victory and proved that he is the closest thing to Gordon as an all-around driver.

In the only two races Gordon hasn’t won on road courses, Stewart had a direct impact. At Watkins Glen in 2000, Stewart eagerly ran Gordon into the wall after only two laps.

Before Stewart became Gordon’s number one adversary on the road courses, it was Mark Martin (6-1). Martin has four career wins on road courses and has Top-5 finishes in 18 of 27 starts. All of Martin’s victories were prior to Gordon’s run. With the resurgence of Roush Racing, it looks like he’ll again find himself in the Top 5.

In a recent test at Sears Point, there were a handful of Winston Cup regulars on hand including all of the "Young Guns." As well as the young drivers have done this season, their team officials all seemingly realized that the road courses will eat up the inexperienced. In a three-day test session, Ricky Rudd (8-1) was the lone veteran among Ryan Newman (11-1), Michigan winner Matt Kenseth (10-1), Kurt Busch (12-1), and Jimmie Johnson (8-1).

After the sessions were over, Johnson had the fastest laps followed by Kenseth. For Kenseth, he did win a NASCAR Southwest series race there in ’99. But Jimmie Johnson? It helps that Johnson is using Gordon’s old chassis and also the winning Gordon set-up notes. However, credit Johnson for putting it all into effect on the course winding through right and left turns, downshifting, minimum braking, entering and exiting those turns with maximum momentum.

That is the type of skill that can’t be learned, it’s just instinctive. After 15 races and two wins for the rookie, maybe it’s time we all stop making excuses for why he’s winning and start applauding that we are witnessing a great new talent.

Maybe, but let’s wait and see how he does with 42 other cars on the track for 350 miles rather than a comfortable test session. The most vivid memory of Johnson on a road course came two years ago in a Busch series race at Watkins Glen when he came into a turn out of control full speed, slid across the sand trap and slammed into the foam wall.

To show everyone he was all right after the wall exploded in what looked to be a horrific head on collision, Johnson took his helmet off, jumped on the roof of the demolished car, and did a little dance like a 1980’s Miami Hurricanes football player in the endzone.

As has been the case for every NASCAR road course race, the "Hired Guns" drive this weekend for a few teams because of their expertise on courses. Ron Fellows (14-1) and Boris Said (18-1) are skilled international drivers who do nothing but go fast on roads. The oval thing doesn’t work for them. They are prominent championship drivers in the Trans-Am series and both do extensive driving in all other Sports Car series such as LeMans and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Fellows has had the most success of the two in NASCAR winning in the Truck and Busch series. His best finish in Winston Cup was second at Watkins Glen, his home track. Another hired gun of sorts is Jerry Nadeau (44-1) who will be driving Richard Petty’s No. 44 car. Nadeau has an extensive European Sports car resume that will always find him a ride for these races if he’s a free-agent.

The problem with all three are their cars. Fellows is driving an under-funded car owned by Joe Nemechek, Said will be driving a back-up Jasper engines car as a second entry. Nadeau will be driving the car that got Buckshot Jones fired.

Other candidates to win this weekend are Rusty Wallace (11-1) and Robby Gordon (10-1). Rusty has five road course wins in his career, the last coming in ’96 at Sears Point. Robby Gordon quite possibly could have won both races last season. His skills as a tough nosed off-road and Champ car driver were definitely on display last year while driving for a top flight Richard Childress team.

It has been a down year for Childress, but Robby should be able to make up any shortcoming with his driving.

POINTS LEADER ”” Sterling Marlin is 110 up, but feeling the heat of defending champ Jeff Gordon.

Sears Point Top 5

1) #24 Jeff Gordon 3-2

2) #6 Mark Martin 6-1

3) #31 Robby Gordon 10-1

4) #2 Rusty Wallace 11-1

5) #20 Tony Stewart 5-1