Originally created 09/06/98

Tiregate consumes Southern 500



DARLINGTON, S.C. -- There are tire marks all over the greatest rivalry in NASCAR, and none of them have been made by Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin.

But the stench of burned rubber, first laid a week ago by the men most responsible for their stardom, has drifted from New Hampshire to South Carolina and permeates the Southern 500.

The drivers admire one another, but Jack Roush and Ray Evernham are in a war of words. Roush, Martin's car owner, suspects that Evernham, Gordon's crew chief, might be doctoring tires to speed up the car at the end of some races.

"In a number of late-race cautions they've put on two tires and outrun cars that put on four," said Roush, who raised the issue last Sunday -- and had a sharp exchange with Evernham -- after Gordon took just two tires with 67 laps remaining and won the CMT 300. "Two tires don't beat four tires in a scenario."

An old trick in auto racing is to treat tires with a solution that will make them softer and faster for short duration. It is illegal in NASCAR because such tires can disintegrate.

Gary Nelson, a longtime crew chief before becoming NASCAR's Winston Cup Series director, concedes that tires can be treated to enhance the performance of a car, but doesn't think that was the case at New Hampshire.

"For what we've see on the tire situation there's nothing there," he said. "We went through every field test you could possibly run, including chemical tests."

The tires have been sent away for chemical analysis, and NASCAR expects to receive the results this week.

Evernham denies any wrongdoing and doesn't care if Roush thinks he's cheating. But he believes the allegations could give a "black eye" to stock car racing and would like Roush to consider what he has done.

"I think he needs to apologize to NASCAR publicly because he's made some insinuations that NASCAR was involved in a coverup and would not come out and say something was wrong.

"If he wants it to end, all he has to do is say, `Hey, I was wrong."

Roush has not ruled that out, but says he wants a "level playing field," and isn't sure that's the case. He is particularly concerned that Gordon's Chevrolet is considerably better than others of that ilk.

"If I'm satisfied that they are just better than the other GM cars and better than our program, then I'll apologize," he said.

Roush also is concerned with the perception that he is accusing NASCAR of chicanery and Evernham of dishonesty.

"I never said cheat," he explained.

He says he wants to ensure equal competition in hopes of keeping his driver in the battle for the series title. Martin is just 67 points behind Gordon entering the race today (1 p.m., ESPN)

And Roush insists he means no disrespect toward Gordon, the 27-year-old driver who has become the ace of the circuit.

"Jeff Gordon is a great race car driver, there's no question about that," he said. "He may go on and mature and be the best that's ever been in Winston Cup. Mark Martin is a great mature race car driver, and today Jeff Gordon is not a better driver."

Dale Jarrett, who has the pole Sunday, made light of what is being called Tiregate. He says two tires wouldn't last very long at demanding Darlington Raceway.

"I guarantee you, if he gets two and wins here we will have look at everything on that car," Jarrett said of Gordon.

Even Evernham laughed at that.

"Yeah, I guess they better," he said.

Jarrett expresses respect for Gordon and Evernham.

"They are able to win races when sometimes they are not the best car," Jarrett said. "Ray understands each race track, the car and his driver."

The feud also has overshadowed what Darlington Raceway originally figured would be its top marketing tool. Now, the winner's bonus of $1 million from series sponsor Winston -- available to Gordon, Martin, Bobby Labonte, Dale Earnhardt or Mike Skinner -- is hardly mentioned.

With a victory, Jarrett would become the ninth driver in 43 years to sweep the Darlington races. In March, he won the TranSouth 400 for the second straight year.

A victory would extend Gordon's run in the oldest NASCAR superspeedway race to four years, rewriting the record he set by winning last year. He also would have 10 victories this year, making him the only driver in NASCAR's modern era to reach double figures three years in a row.

It would be his 30th victory over the past three seasons, matching the 1981-83 run of three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip. Gordon also would have 37 victories over four seasons, matching the mark shared by Waltrip and seven-time series champion Richard Petty.