It took almost a complete year, but the unthinkable streak of consecutive races without a win by Jeff Gordon will stand at 31.
Last week’s win provided the late race drama that a typical Bristol race always does, but this year’s chapter renewed an intense bitter rivalry between Gordon and Rusty Wallace in an almost identical situation that happened at the same track in ’97.
With two laps remaining, Gordon reeled in Wallace who got caught up in traffic and made the winning move. Wallace, who has a streak much longer than Gordon without winning a race, was upset about the bump.
Gordon was apologetic about the move, but was much happier about getting the monkey off his back.
"I got into him a little bit and he got loose," Gordon said. "I hope he’ll understand tomorrow."
For a few Las Vegas Sports Books, the Gordon bump wasn’t a favorable decision for the house.
"We had been playing with fire for a while with Gordon," said
Top 5 at Darlington
1) #9 Bill Elliott 7-1
2) #24 Jeff Gordon 6-1
3) #22 Ward Burton 18-1
4) #97 Kurt Busch 10-1
5) #40 Sterling Marlin 15-1
Green Valley Ranch’s Kelly Downey. "We opened Gordon at 8-1 and got great interest at that number and moved him to 6-1 after he qualified on the pole.
"Every week we had gotten really good action on Gordon, especially the last five weeks," he said. "It was inevitable that he would win sooner or later. We had been lucky over that time to escape with favorable decisions for the house by Gordon not winning."
With Gordon adding his name into the mix of winners this season, it makes forecasting the final 11 races of the season now even more difficult.
By finally winning, Gordon (6-1) is once again the favorite to win a race this week at Darlington. Not only does he have momentum on his side after finally winning, but he’s deeper into the championship chase where he currently sits third, 111 points behind Sterling Marlin (15-1).
Gordon also has a
favorable track record in the Southern 500 where he is the only driver to
ever win the prestigious NASCAR event four straight years. All told, Gordon has five wins in 19 Darlington starts.
Gordon’s top competition this week figures to be Bill Elliott (7-1). "Million Dollar Bill" got that nickname by winning the Winston Million in this 1985 race that culminated a sweep of NASCAR’s three crown jewel races. He had won the Daytona and Winston 500’s already. Elliott has just as many wins at Darlington as Gordon, but also has 29 more starts.
Elliott’s last win at Darlington came in the 1994 Southern 500, which was his last victory until joining the successful Ray Evernham Dodge team last year. No one has been as consistently fast on the horsepower tracks as Elliott over the last two months.
Ward Burton (18-1) has been an absolute disaster this season. He currently sits 27th in points, but has two wins on the season which only six other drivers can claim. The biggest win came at the season opening Daytona 500.
Burton won last year’s Southern 500 as a 30-1 long shot and won the 2000 spring race there at 25-1. Look for Burton to be in contention for another win.
Ward’s brother Jeff Burton (18-1) has always had great success over his career at Darlington with exception of the last two seasons. He swept the ’99 season and also has nine Top-5’s to go along with those wins. The correlation of Burton’s demise and the rise of teammate Kurt Busch (10-1) may have some validity.
Busch seems to have gotten the competitive car that Burton once had at Darlington. In each of Busch’s Darlington starts, he’s been a front runner but his inexperience at the track has always got him into trouble.
Others to watch this week include Jeremy Mayfield (50-1), Dale Jarrett (10-1), Sterling Marlin who won the spring race, and the rejuvenated Bobby Labonte (15-1).