The Callahan Report: Jeff Gordon Wins The Winston Million
1 September 1997
DARLINGTON: While watching Jeff Gordon cross the finish line at the conclusion of the Mountain Dew Southern 500, one couldn't help but think....here is the best driver in NASCAR. Gordon won the race and the Winston Million with teamwork, grit, and bravado. He didn't have the best car. He did have massive desire which separates superstars from "great drivers".
By his own admission, Gordon knew he shouldn't have won the race. What he doesn't realize is just how amazing he is on a race track. His performance in the last few laps of the race was nothing short of phenomenal. While banging and sliding his way around the racetrack, Gordon held off the fastest car on the oval. Jeff Burton made a charge as the white flag waved. He tapped the rear of Gordon's Dupont racer sending Gordon sideways. Gordon gathered it up and came down on Burton. They banged all the way to the first turn. Burton backed off.....Gordon didn't. The young driver from Pittsboro, IN drove on to win his third straight Southern 500 victory.
No team worked harder than the Gordon's Rainbow Warriors. Gordon had an ill handling car throughout the first half of the race. At the mid point, the crew decided to make major changes to the Dupont car. On two separate pit sequences, Gordon dropped to the back of the lead pack as the crew placed and removed rubber in the springs to cure his handling problems. His car was never perfect, but the team could not sacrifice track position late in the race. Gordon "held on" for the last part of the race.
In addition to the last lap tangle with Jeff Burton, Gordon had at least two other close calls. Gordon tapped the wall while leading. He continued with smoke coming from the rear of his racer in the corners. In another incident, Ward Burton spun and hit the wall directly in front of the lead pack. Gordon drove through the smoke with Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton following closely behind.
Including Gordon, there were five cars that were consistently fast all day. Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, and Jeff Burton were the top runners. Burton was clearly the fastest of them all. Burton's ninth row starting spot was not a good indication of just how fast he was. If Burton's pit crew was as quick as Gordon's, he would have easily won today's race. Burton blew through traffic after every pit stop. He could easily catch and run with the leaders. During nearly every pit stop, Burton would drop five or six spots.
Darlington International Raceway opens each year with pristine, freshly painted, white concrete walls. By day's end, those walls are dotted with black tire marks. Those leaving their mark on the walls of Darlington included Jeff Purvis, John Andretti, Ricky Craven, Mike Skinner, Ward Burton, Hut Striklin, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Hamilton, Robby Gordon, and Kyle Petty.
In an odd early race development, Dale Earnhardt brushed the wall on the opening lap. The incident did not look serious by any means, as Earnhardt continued on the track. Earnhardt radioed his crew saying he could not find his way onto the pit road. After finally making it into the pits, Earnhardt had to be removed from the car and was carried to the infield care center where an ambulance was called. Richard Childress commented, "He was seeing double....and he was real groggy before the race started. They're transporting him to the hospital now, and that's where I'm headed." Rookie Mike Dillon replaced Dale Earnhardt in the car