Originally created 07/05/97

Gordon halfway to Petty's record

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Richard Petty never had his own web site.

He didn't marry a beauty queen, he didn't have companies plaster his image on billboards, toothpaste tubes or prepaid telephone cards.

And if Jeff Gordon keeps this up, Petty may no longer have the record in NASCAR's modern era of 13 victories in a Winston Cup season.

At the halfway point of the season, the 25-year-old Gordon is halfway toward breaking the King's record that has stood for 22 years.

Gordon will start fourth Saturday in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. His Chevrolet has been running strong in both days of practice, and he figures to be one of the heavy favorites.

But then, that's the way it's been almost every week.

"Every once in awhile, somebody comes along who's got the gift," said Ray Evernham, Gordon's crew chief. "And he's the one right now."

Gordon has won seven times this year, starting with the season-opening Daytona 500. In 15 races, he has finished in the top five 12 times, and he leads the Winston Cup standings by 92 points over Mark Martin.

"I'm in shock what we've accomplished the first half of the season," Gordon said. "I don't know how to explain it. You can have everything going your way one day, two days. But to make them click for that many times is pretty tough to do.

"We're pretty much in amazement of ourselves right now, but we're trying to keep it going."

The scary thing about Gordon is that he's had it going for three years now. He won 10 times last year and led the circuit with five poles, most laps in the lead and earnings. He finished second to teammate Terry Labonte for the Winston Cup championship.

In 1995, Gordon became the youngest Winston Cup Series champion in the modern era.

"It's a lot like the Chicago Bulls and other teams that have been dominant at times," said Ricky Craven, another Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "They have entered a level of confidence that few people have ever experienced. It goes far beyond Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham. They have ultimate confidence in one another and he races with authority."

Petty has seen all this before.

The all-time leader with 200 Winston Cup wins also won seven races through 15 starts in 1975. He finished the season with 13 victories, winning the sixth of his seven points championships.

Darrell Waltrip won 12 races in a season in 1981 and 1982, and then came Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt, each of whom had 11-win seasons in the 1980s.

"All of them had their time," Petty said Friday. "At certain times in their career, they were indestructible. They could walk on water, man."

Still, nothing reminds Petty of 1975 quite like Gordon.

"It was just one of those years where we were just sort of like Gordon," Petty said Friday. "If everybody else showed up, and we finished the race, they weren't going to beat you."

On the pole Saturday is Mike Skinner, the 40-year-old rookie who finished 12th from the pole at the Daytona 500. Right next to him will be teammate Earnhardt, who finished .004 seconds behind Skinner in qualifying. Earnhardt is trying to end a career-worst 42-race winless streak.

Earnhardt's last win was in Atlanta on March 10, 1996. Since then, Gordon has won 16 Winston Cup races and his rainbow-colored car has become perhaps more feared on the track than Earnhardt's black Chevrolet.

Gordon also has become the target of boos just about everywhere he goes, mainly from fans who aren't ready to see Earnhardt fade to black.

"We're doing great things on the race track," Gordon shrugged. "We're winning races. When you get booed when you're doing that ... I think it's a good problem to have."


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