Originally created 08/16/98

Barriers blocking Gordon



BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Jeff Gordon's march into NASCAR history promises to be heavily contested.

Gordon will become the seventh driver in the modern NASCAR era to win four consecutive races if he captures the Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway today (12:30 p.m., ESPN).

This is the first time the high-banked oval speedway is being used since safety fences were extended following the deaths of three fans who were struck by debris after a wreck in the U.S. 500 July 26.

It was the worst accident ever at the speedway. Six other spectators were injured.

The improvements begin in turn three, near where Adrian Fernandez's Indy-car slammed into the wall, launching a wheel into the stands. The improvements continue through the front stretch and finish between turns one and two. The top portion of the fence, which angles over the track, was lengthened by four feet. The extension added about 2 1/2 feet to the fence's height, for a total of 17 feet.

There are at least three obstacles blocking Gordon's path:

--Ernie Irvan, who won his first Michigan pole in qualifying.

--Bobby Labonte, who swept both Michigan races in 1995.

--The fact that Gordon never has won at Michigan.

"We've always run well here," Gordon said after practice Saturday. "We've just come up a little short."

Gordon, who has an 82-point lead over Mark Martin in the Winston Cup title chase, was just a tick slower than Labonte in qualifying. He'll be third on the starting grid.

"You look at our performances and, yeah, we've been winning a lot of races, but we haven't put a big gap between Mark and myself," Gordon said. "That's why we have to win races now."

Irvan, who was nearly killed in a 1994 accident at Michigan, won the pole with a lap at 183.416 mph. He rebounded from his terrible wreck to win the June race at Michigan last year, but this is the first time Irvan will start on the pole at the 2-mile oval.

"It's an awesome facility and I love coming here," said Irvan, who missed 14 months after his crash. "My wife gets nervous when she sees the helicopters because it reminds her of how they took me out of here.

"But I'm over that. I like coming here because you can try all kinds of stuff (with the car)."

And right now that's a hot Pontiac.

Irvan qualified ninth for last Sunday's Bud at the Glen race, the fifth time this season he has started in the top 10.

"We're running better and I think that pertains to us working together better," Irvan said. "We've picked apart what we need to have in a race car when we show up, instead of figuring it out when we get there."

Labonte also has been doing well. He entered last month's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono sixth in the point standings. Labonte finished fourth at Pocono, followed by a third at the Brickyard 400 and 10th last weekend at Watkins Glen.

The results vaulted Labonte into fifth in the point standings. That brought him to Michigan, one of his favorite tracks. In 1995, Labonte became one of only five drivers to sweep both of Michigan's annual Winston Cup races.

"We've had a satisfying stretch of races on some tough tracks for us," Labonte said. "We expect to do well at Michigan.

"I'm hoping we can continue to have the consistency we've shown lately and get close to picking up another spot in the point standings."

Martin, the defending champion, has won four races at Michigan, including the last two.

"Every time you win one, it's less likely you're going to win the next time," said Martin, who will start fifth, behind Dale Jarrett. "I know what we're up against and I'm motivated."

Martin also will be carrying an emotional burden. On Aug. 8, his father, half-sister and his father's wife were killed in a plane crash in Nevada. The funeral was Wednesday in Arkansas.

Gordon's run over the past four seasons has been unrivaled since the prime of Richard Petty. A win today would put him in select company.

If he wins, Gordon would tie Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott and Martin as the only drivers in the modern era to win four consecutive races. Those drivers all won at Michigan.

In addition to Michigan, Gordon has not won at Phoenix, Texas or Las Vegas. But there have been only two races at Texas and one at Las Vegas.

The car that Gordon brought to Michigan in June was new and he finished third. Since then, that car has won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Gordon took the Brickyard 400 and the No Bull $5 million bonus.

"We're going to do everything possible to be there at the end," Gordon said.