Originally created 05/26/98

Gordon luck stuns peers



CONCORD, N.C. -- He ran out of gas in a race he had won. He missed a practice because he slept late, and a teammate wrecked his car. He was seemingly beat when the big money was on the table Sunday night.

Somehow, Jeff Gordon ended his 10 days at Charlotte Motor Speedway with another Coca-Cola 600 victory, the Winston Cup points lead and an even bigger legend.

Gordon's latest accomplishment is one they'll be talking about for years around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"I can't believe he did it," said a disbelieving Rusty Wallace, who finished second after Gordon passed him for the lead with 10 laps remaining. "I really thought we had it. Boy, I tell you what, he's good, but I thought we had it."

Wallace was racing for an extra $1 million, as were Bobby Labonte, Jeremy Mayfield, Dale Earnhardt and Ken Schrader. Those drivers were eligible for the Winston No Bull 5 bonus because they finished in the top five in the Daytona 500, the first of the year's five major races. The 600 was the second.

Late in the 39th 600, it appeared that the race would be won by either Wallace, Labonte, Martin Martin or Dale Jarrett. Gordon had shown some strength at various times during the night, but he didn't have quite the car those four leaders did. But the complexion of the event changed with a late caution flag and a round of pit stops.

After Gary Bradberry crashed on the 378th of 400 laps, the leaders all pulled down pit road for tires. Wallace, Labonte, Martin and Jarrett each took on two tires. Gordon, running fifth, took on four.

The fresh rubber turned Gordon's Monte Carlo into a rocket. Sixth on the restart, Gordon quickly passed Johnny Benson, Jarrett and Martin. He slipped by Labonte for second on Lap 388, then pulled up to Wallace's bumper.

Gordon tried Wallace going into Turn 2 on Lap 390, but couldn't get him. But going into Turn 4, Gordon dove inside Wallace, while Labonte went high. This time, with some 170,000 fans on their feet, Gordon made the pass.

Gordon then pulled away in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy to post his third Coca-Cola victory in only six starts.

The win was worth $345,450, which included a $110,000 bonus for winning the race and leading the points. Gordon now has three victories on the year, matching Martin for the season high.

"It's pretty tough when you're battling a couple of guys going for a million bucks," Gordon said in a post-race press conference that pushed into Monday morning. "They were running hard. You could see the fire in their eyes, man, trying to pass those two guys."

Gordon blew a win in The Winston May 16 when he ran out of gas while leading on the last lap because crew chief Ray Evernham miscalculated the mileage. Then, Gordon slept late and missed Saturday morning's practice. Terry Labonte took the No. 24 car out for a few laps and hit the wall after cutting a tire.

The car sustained major sheet-metal damage on the right side. Evernham and crew were forced to change several major components, including the front and rear suspensions.

"I think it brought us closer together and made us more motivated, more focused," Gordon said, adding that Labonte did a nice job of preventing more extensive damage.

"Ray could say he messed up (in The Winston), and I could say I messed up Saturday. It was just kind of a reality check where we said, `Hey, we got a race to win.' And we did."

Evernham atoned for his mistake in The Winston with his decision to go for four tires instead of two in the 600. That was the difference in the race.

"It looked like I really knew what I was doing and I'm smart; quite honestly, it was the only thing to do to take a shot at winning," Evernham said.

Gordon agreed. "Ray said we ought to risk it (track position), and I said, `let's go for it.' I'm always good for four tires."

Gordon assumed the points lead for the first time this season, moving 27 points ahead of Mayfield. Wallace is third, Martin fourth and Terry Labonte fifth.

Besides positioning himself for a run at a third championship in four years, Gordon earned a shot at the No Bull 5 bonus at the Brickyard 400 on Aug. 1 at Indianapolis.

The other top-five finishers in the 600 also are eligible for the $1 million bonus -- Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Martin and Jarrett.

"You're going to see somebody win that million dollars before the year is out," Gordon said. "I hope it's me. We'll really have extra motivation going to Indianapolis."

Winston officials may want to get the check ready.