DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Although he was to win the race, further cementing his place in history, Jeff Gordon began the Southern 500 last year with second billing on the marquee.
But today (1 p.m., ESPN), when he tries to become the only driver to win stock car racing's oldest show three times in a row while shooting for a million-dollar bonus, The Kid will be center stage.
To win, Gordon must outrun the likes of polesitter Bobby Labonte, whose Pontiac qualified Friday at 170.661 mph. Gordon starts seventh, hoping to extend his Winston Cup-best record to nine victories this year.
And he knows how difficult that will be at treacherous Darlington Raceway, the Lady in Black with a reputation for spoiling the most ambitious of dreams.
"That's the kind of place this is," Gordon said. "It can make your day or break your heart."
Dale Jarrett knows that better than most. A year ago, he had won two of three designated NASCAR majors to put himself in the position Gordon now occupies: Win the Southern 500, the fourth major, and series sponsor R.J. Reynolds will give you an additional $1 million.
Jarrett, who had tested extensively on the misshaped monster, awoke from his dream when he slid on a few cents worth of oil and found the third-turn wall. That paved the way for Gordon to successfully defend his title.
"It was unfortunate," Jarrett said. "I wasn't even pushing the car."
Now, he will watch with interest Gordon's attempt to become only the second driver to collect the bonus. Bill Elliott earned the money in 1985, when he won the Daytona 500, Winston 500 and Darlington's Labor Day weekend race - NASCAR'S oldest event.
"Jeff's much better prepared now than I was then," said Elliott, who won despite feeling overwhelmed by the hype. "I came into that season with just four career wins."
Gordon is seeking his 28th victory in only five years on the most competitive circuit in the world. Including the bonus, Gordon's career earnings would be about $14 million, vaulting him to sixth on the NASCAR list.
He became eligible for the bonus by winning the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.
The money is nice, but Gordon is more excited by the challenge, especially at "the track too tough to tame."
"The money that Winston puts up for this is unbelievable," he said. "However, it is the prestige of winning this race that matters to us."
David Pearson, who won a record 10 Winston Cup races at Darlington, couldn't beat the egg-shaped oval three times in a row. Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, whose record run of three straight overall Darlington victories was matched last year by Gordon, also failed to bag three straight Southern 500s despite nine wins on the 1.366-mile track.
Failure is expected at Darlington, where Gordon is trying to achieve what no one has in 47 years. And he enters the race like all but Jarrett - a loser of his most recent encounter with its high banks.
Gordon, 13 points behind Mark Martin in his bid for a second series title, finished third behind Jarrett five months ago in the TranSouth 400. A fourth straight Darlington victory - something unfathomable to most who have raced there - would have been difficult to surpass.
But Pearson isn't surprised that Gordon at least approached it, saying The Kid appears to have a feel for the old place that is unique among drivers.
"He's smart, a lot smarter than I thought," Pearson said.
The 26-year-old Gordon is one of only six drivers to repeat in the traditional Labor Day Weekend race.
The others read like a who's who of the sport - with a combined 409 career victories and 17 titles. In addition to Earnhardt, Pearson and Gordon, they are Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Herb Thomas.
Labonte will be trying to put a Pontiac in the winner's circle at Darlington for the first time since Joe Weatherly took the Rebel 400 in 1963. The only other Pontiac victory in 87 races here was by Buck Baker, in the 1960 Southern 500.
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