Originally created 10/25/98

Gordon is ready to nail down title

PHOENIX -- Jeff Gordon would love to bury the talk about his lack of killer instinct as the Winston Cup season nears its end.

In the last three years, as the 27-year-old driver has won two championships and finished second to teammate Terry Labonte in the other, the months of October and November have been a wasteland for Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team.

They have stumbled and faltered each year, barely hanging on for the titles in 1995 and 1997, and losing the lead in the final weeks of the Labonte's 1996 championship season.

Today (2 p.m., TNN), Gordon can put a definite end to his reputation as a late-season fadeout -- seemingly his one Achilles' heel -- with a strong performance in the Dura-Lube 500 on the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway.

A year ago, Gordon finished 17th in Phoenix after a cut tire forced him to pit under the green flag. Dale Jarrett won the race, and eventually came within 14 points of taking the title from Gordon.

This year, the 500-kilometer (312-mile) event is third from last on the schedule, instead of second from the end. But Gordon has a virtual lock on the $2 million championship, leading Mark Martin by 358 points after winning Oct. 17 in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

If Gordon can add 12 points to his lead Sunday, he will clinch the title.

Even if the leader stumbles again, all he needs to do is finish 32nd or better in each of the remaining races to hold on to the title, no matter what Martin does. But holding on is not what Gordon has in mind as he seeks to extend his career-high wins total to 12.

"We're still in the midst of a season," he said. "It's certainly not over until it's over. Any time there's a possibility (the championship) can be lost, I have to look at that possibility.

"Whatever happens, we want to be a competitor with a chance to win. We're having a dream season with all the wins, but what would cap this season off is to be competitive through the end."

Gordon, who will start 12th in a 43-car field today -- alongside 11th-place Martin -- doesn't look like he's going to falter this time.

"We want to come out of this season battling hard for wins, unlike what we've done in the last couple of years," he said.

Gordon is on a tear. He heads into today's race with 17-consecutive top-five finishes. Another would match the NASCAR record of 18, set by David Pearson in 1968.

"We've been very lucky, very fortunate," Gordon said. "But we've also brought great race cars to the track each week. But, even with 17 top-fives in a row, if Mark hadn't had the problem he had at Talladega, he would have been right there with us.

"I hear stats about us winning the championship by finishing 32nd (in each race), but it's not that hard to get caught up in an early wreck or blow an engine early. I sure hope that doesn't happen."

It did happen to Martin, who got caught up in a multicar crash two weeks ago in Talladega and finished 34th. That cost him 114 points in his battle with Gordon, who finished second to Jarrett in that race.

"The consistency they've had has been the most amazing thing," Martin said. "I've already had the greatest season of my career, no matter what happens.

Ken Schrader, hoping to come up with his first win since the summer of 1991, will start from the pole, with rookie Kenny Irwin alongside.


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