The Callahan Report: Gordon 'Holds On' For Second Winston Cup Title
16 November 1997
ATLANTA, GA: In NASCAR, there is a theory. Consistency wins championships. That theory was proven today in Atlanta. After a dismal performance in the final race of the season, it was Jeff Gordon's consistency that proved valuable.
Jeff Gordon has been a consistent driver all season. He finished in the top ten 23 times during his 1997 Winston Cup campaign. He and his team were rewarded with the prestigious Winston Cup for their efforts. By the narrowest of margins, Gordon walked away with his second Winston Cup title.
Jeff Gordon, 1997 Winston Cup Champion
Gordon's season began with victory in the Daytona 500. His season finished with one of the toughest weekends of his young career. Heading to the final race of the season in Atlanta, Gordon held a 77-point lead over second place Dale Jarrett. Mark Martin was 87 points behind Gordon. All Gordon needed to do to win the Winston Cup Championship was finish 18th or better, no matter what Jarrett and Martin did. The task should have been easy for a guy who had already won a third of the races he entered in 97. Gordon didn't march though the final race weekend. He limped.
Gordon started the weekend with a crash in the pit lane. He was forced to go to his backup car for qualifying. During his qualifying run, Gordon slipped in his own oil, causing him to lift off the gas. When qualifying was over, Gordon found himself starting the race from the 37th spot.
Things weren't any easier in the race. Gordon had to deal with handling problems throughout the race. Gordon had to work hard to race to his 17th place finish. Gordon was constantly in heavy traffic. It was a situation that disturbed him. His car was "loose" any time a competitor closed in on his rear. Where there are loose race cars, there is a chance for disaster. The disaster never came. Gordon literally "held on" to win the title.
Gordon said, "It's the biggest sigh of relief ever. This was a trying weekend, cutting it as close as we did. It was not exactly what we wanted to do." The champion continued, "You can't look at what we did today; it's what we did all year long."
Crew Chief Ray Evernham added, "I can't stand winning championships like this. Just once I'd like to win one racing for it on the racetrack."
Gordon commented on his second title, "After the first (Winston Cup Title), we were just in awe of what we had done. We did not expect to come out and win the championship that year. This year, we worked right from February all the way to the end to try to win the championship." Gordon concluded, "Coming off last year, not winning the championship made us that much hungrier. To win two championships is the sweetest thing ever."
The other drivers involved in the championship hunt did everything they could to take the Cup from Gordon. Both Martin and Jarrett were in a position to win the race. Neither of them could stop the eventual winner, Bobby Labonte, but they were in a position to pounce if Labonte's powerful Pontiac faltered. Martin and Jarrett both led the race, gaining valuable bonus points. They never gave up hope, knowing Gordon was stuck in the middle of the pack.
In a final gamble, Martin took on two tires on his last pit stop. The move put him in the lead by six seconds over Labonte with 50 laps remaining. The gamble did not pay off for Martin, but it didn't cost him either. With 25 laps to go, Labonte had moved to within three seconds of Martin. Labonte's fresh rubber and horsepower were too much for Martin. Labonte finally blew by the Valvoline Thunderbird 11 laps from the finish. Dale Jarrett was also able to get by him. Martin came into the race third in the points. He ended the race third in the points.
Martin commented, "We gave it our best shot. We had Labonte there with 20 laps to go, but something broke in the engine."
Jarrett overcame early problems. His car would not get off the corners early in the race. His team thought they had made a bad decision on the correct gear to run for the race. They were considering changing the timing manually to make up for the problem. They would need a yellow to make the change. Jarrett's car continued to get better. The team never made the intended change. At the finish, Jarrett's car was the fastest on the track, with the exception of Labonte's.
Jarrett said, "We did all that we could do. We were just a little bit shy of Bobby." Concerning his battle with Gordon, Jarrett said, "I had no idea what he was doing or where he was. I never asked. I knew what our job was and what we had to do."
There were three drivers who had a shot at winning the title today. All three did what they had to do to win. Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin finished second and third. They both led laps. Gordon had moved to his magic "18th spot" early in the race. He didn't move up much more. Gordon finished in 17th, three laps down. His final margin of victory was 14 points over Jarrett.
The championship was the fourth closest in NASCAR history. Gordon, who is 26 years old, is the only driver to win two championships in his "twenties." Gordon's first championship came in 1995.
The 1997 Winston Cup Championship was one of the most memorable in recent memory. All the teams and drivers in this battle deserved to win. Jeff Gordon may have the title, but all the drivers in this year's battle are champions.
Editor's Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more drawings) can be viewed in the Visions Of Speed Art Gallery.