CONCORD, N.C. The answer to one of stock car racing's most-asked questions can be found in Victory Lane.
Who was most responsible for Jeff Gordon's early success on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series: the driver or his crew chief, Ray Evernham?
Gordon's return to prominence suggests the mastermind of the three series championships might have been the guy turning the steering wheel, not the wrenches. At best, it suggests no one ingredient is any more important than another.
Heading into today's Coca-Cola 600 (5 p.m., FOX) at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Gordon is second in the point standings, just 14 away from suddenly ailing Dale Jarrett. More importantly, he's coming off consecutive second-place finishes on the regular-season schedule and a victory at last week's all-star race.
He also is starting stock car's marathon from the outside pole.
"It's amazing what just one win at The Winston (all-star race) will do for you," Gordon said. "A confidence-booster like that win we had, and the way we went about, is sometimes what you need to get those final few pieces together. That's what feels so good right now. Things are going well. The confidence is there. The cars are driving great."
Although Gordon won three times last year, he finished ninth in the points race. That put a lot of pressure on new crew chief Robbie Loomis, and it fueled the speculation that Evernham was the true genius behind Gordon's success.
A victory at Las Vegas earlier this season and a consistent charge up the rankings have cemented Loomis' tenure and Gordon's status as one of the premier drivers on the circuit.
"All drivers have successful seasons and weak seasons," Loomis said. "And just like a clock, you're either at the top or at the bottom. But winners have a way of motivating and rallying people, and Jeff is one of the best at that."
Evernham, who quit during the 1999 season to lead Dodge's return to racing, has struggled this year. Much like Gordon did a year ago, Evernham is desperately searching for a combination between driver and crew that can make a difference.
Gordon figures to make a move during today's 600-mile race. Not only is he in the first row of the starting lineup, but Jarrett also is mired in 37th place in a backup car. Jarrett crashed during Thursday's qualifying session, then he broke a rib in his right side during a routine lap in Saturday morning's practice session.
"I just felt it pop," Jarrett said of the unusual injury.
Nonetheless, Gordon knows what kind of troubles lurk in a 600-mile race, especially one on a 1´-mile raceway with three-story-tall banking.
"It's a 600-mile race," he said. "We know what it takes to win the race. It's keep up with the constant changes of this track and being there at the end of this race. It's easier said than done."
Gordon has won the 600 three times.
He's also won the all-star race three times. And in the two previous years -- 1995 and '97 -- he won The Winston, he went on to win the series championship.
"I'm real happy with the way things have gone," Gordon said. "We've been battling for wins and that's all you can ask for is to be in the position to win. It's up to us to pull a victory through.
"We need to get back in Victory Lane. That would do a lot for us right now because we are having a great season. We're right where we need to be in points. We've been very consistent. I couldn't be much happier other than having some more wins."
While Gordon, just 29, has the most career victories in the 600 than any other driver, he will start beside a rookie who's making only his third NASCAR Winston Cup Series start.
Ryan Newman, a driver who's being groomed by Rusty Wallace and car owner Roger Penske for the future, won the pole position with a fast lap of 185.217 mph.
Gordon was second at 184.900 mph, followed by Todd Bodine in third at 184.628 and Bill Elliott in fourth at 184.414
During the final practice sessions Saturday leading up to today's main event, Newman's Ford was fastest at 176.829 mph, and Gordon's Chevrolet was second at 176.321.
Has Gordon's recent surge got him thinking of winning his first championship since 1998 -- the last full season Evernham served as crew chief?
"It's not just the drivers; it's not just the team; it's everybody," Gordon said. "They've all got to work together. We've shown exactly that this year.
"Last year, we struggled. We weren't very strong. We weren't battling for wins. We didn't battle for the championship. We got our team together and started working together as a team. We started building better race cars, and I feel like I've adjusted a little bit. And boom, all of a sudden we've become an entire unit. And most of the people on this team have a lot of experience. So once you get the things to click, that's when the experience really pays off."
REACH Don Coble at email@example.com.
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