Originally created 08/01/98

Gordon a Brickyard favorite



INDIANAPOLIS -- Give Jeff Gordon a mediocre car in a Podunk race on a track he doesn't like and put up a small purse. You still need luck to beat him.

The criteria is quite different for today's $6.4 million Brickyard 400 (1 p.m., ABC-TV).

Gordon has a great car, the race is one of the year's most prestigious, the track suits his strengths, and the prize money is lottery-like.

Uh oh.

Add the fact that Gordon lived in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., as a youth and will have a huge following among the projected crowd of about 300,000. Talk about motivation.

"It almost seems like he has too much going for him here," said Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Terry Labonte. "He's going to be awfully tough."

Gordon starts third, and in his last eight races, he has posted three wins, a second and three thirds. He comes off a dominating victory last week at Pocono, a track that has comparatively flat banking similar to that at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"This is really a driver's track," Gordon said of Indy, a 2 1/2 -mile rectangle with four distinct turns banked only nine degrees. "There's so much of a different line and different approach and different exit to these corners. It's hard to do it the same way every corner, every lap. But I feel good about it."

A two-time Winston Cup champion and the current points leader, Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard in 1994 at age 23, and he finished sixth in 1996 and fourth last year. With a win this year he would pick up $1.6 million, the largest single prize in U.S. motorsports history.

Gordon is eligible for the Winston No Bull 5 $1 million bonus, along with the four other drivers who finished in the top-five in the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte in May, The bonanza is available to any driver who can win one of the five major races after placing in the top five in the previous major. Gordon won the Coca Cola 600, followed by Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett.

Putting a stack of money in front of Gordon is like holding up a steak in front of a Doberman. Still three days shy of his 27th birthday, Gordon has claimed every big check on the circuit except for the No Bull 5 bonus, which was only instituted this year. A win today would push Gordon's career earnings over $20 million, second in NASCAR history behind only Dale Earnhardt's $32 million.

"Jeff Gordon is really an exception in racing," racing legend Mario Andretti said in a chat outside his motorhome Saturday. "You've had some meteoric rises from other drivers, but very few that compare. The ones that come to mind are (A.J.) Foyt and Parnelli (Jones).

"Some are a little more of late bloomers. (Dale) Earnhardt was a bit of a late bloomer, but, shoot, did he come on. Each individual has a different story to tell."

All four of the other drivers eligible for the bonus have the wherewithal to win.

Jarrett is a former winner and starts second in the No. 88 Ford. Martin starts seventh has been one of the fastest drivers in practice in the No. 6 Ford. Bobby Labonte starts 10th in the Joe Gibbs-owned No. 18 Pontiac. And Rusty Wallace, who led pre-race testing, starts 14th in the No. 2 Penske-South Ford.

Said Martin, who trails Gordon by 62 points in the series standings, "We're squeezing our guts as hard as we can and not have them explode. I'm not sure we don't squeeze pretty hard at all the races, though. We try to win every race. We would obviously like to win this one."

In five years, the Brickyard 400 has gone from being something of a novelty to universal acclamation as one of the country's most important motorsports events. Although it has not surpassed the 82-year-old Indianapolis 500 in prestige, the Brickyard 400 has earned a place of its own.

"I grew up as a kid watching the Indy 500 on closed-circuit TV before it was on (network) TV," Jarrett said. "To know about the history of this place, it means a lot to me to be able to come here in a stock car. I know of the drivers who have been here and the champions that have raced here, and to be a part of that is very special."

Gordon isn't the only hometown favorite here. Rookie Kenny Irwin, who starts fourth in the No. 28 Ford, is an Indianapolis native. And John Andretti, who starts ninth in Richard Petty's No. 43 Pontiac, grew up in Indianapolis after moving from Pennsylvania at six months of age and still lives here in the off-season.

"I went to (high) school here, and I met my wife here," John Andretti said. "Indianapolis is everything to me. Just getting to be here in the garages feels good. Even if I'm not running weal well, I love being here. But I want to win this race really bad. I still want to win the Indy 500."

Not to be dismissed as a contender is pole-sitter Ernie Irvan, a man who has yet to post a top-five finish with his current team, but has performed well here.

Irvan was leading with six laps to go in 1994 when a tire failed. He was second in 1995, and he led the most laps last year before finishing 10th.

"Every Brickyard that I've been in, it seems that I've had the potential to win." Irvan said.

One man has more than potential. Jeff Gordon has almost too much going for him.