The Callahan Report: Gordon Ends NASCAR's First 50 Years in Style
9 November 1998
By Terry Callahan
HAMPTON, GA: Jeff Gordon has punctuated the NASCAR
Winston Cup series throughout the year. He ended his year with an
exclamation mark. With his third championship title already in hand,
Gordon blazed to his 13th victory of the year at the NAPA 500 in Atlanta.
It was the final race of NASCAR's 50th anniversary season. By winning in
Atlanta, Gordon tied Richard Petty's record for wins in a single season.
The Auto Channel
Gordon won the race by sticking to what has worked for him all season. He let the advice of his crew chief, Ray Evernham, guide him to victory. Evernham ordered four fresh tires on Gordon's final pit stop. It was just the edge Gordon needed to catch Dale Jarrett with a handful of laps remaining in the race. Like so many times this year, Gordon was not the leader within 10 laps of the finish of a race, but still managed to win.
The race itself was a marathon event. The NAPA 500 was scheduled to start just after noon Sunday. The checkered flag did not fall until nearly midnight. Rains interrupted the race throughout the day. NASCAR officials were determined to end the 1998 season as scheduled Sunday. Atlanta Speedway is equipped with lighting. At 9:40 p.m. the NAPA 500 was re- started after two soaking rain delays.
NASCAR kept their eyes on the weather. They informed the teams on lap 190 there would be a yellow flag. This would allow the teams to come in one last time for service. NASCAR said the race would be shortened as more rain approached. After the yellow flag, the teams were told there would be 25 laps remaining in the race when the green flag dropped. It would be a trophy dash as the green came out on lap 197. The original scheduled distance was 325 laps.
Gordon was the leader of the race before the final caution period. He fell to eighth place during his final pit stop. The competition in front of Gordon took on two tires while the three time Winston Cup champion replaced all four of his Goodyear tires. Gordon diced through traffic on his charge back to the front in championship style.
The 25 laps of green flag racing left little time for Gordon to make his charge. The green flag racing got even shorter as Gordon made contact with Morgan Shepherd while passing on lap 198. Shepherd slammed the wall as a result. Shepherd was uninjured. The caution period lasted until lap 204.
While Gordon was slicing through the traffic, the red, white, and blue Ford Taurus machine of Dale Jarrett shot past him on lap 206. Jarrett had also taken four fresh tires on his final pit stop. Gordon followed Jarrett through the traffic to the front of the pack. Once the Jarrett-Gordon freight train was in front, the battle heated up. Gordon took advantage of a "tight" condition on Jarrett's car to ease past the veteran racer on lap 215. Gordon pulled out to a ten-car-length lead at the checkered flag.
"It's unbelievable what this year has offered to me, really this entire career I'm having,'' said Gordon. "It's just a dream come true."
NASCAR made a late rules change in the air-dam/spoiler area this week. Gordon credited the rules change for his victory in Atlanta.
"What we were lacking was just downforce. The other guys had us covered on downforce," said Gordon, who won his 42nd career race Sunday night. "We never would have been able to make a pass on D.J. (Dale Jarrett) without the changes to the air dam and spoiler.''
The familiar names in the championship hunt were the same names that appeared at the top in Atlanta. Jarrett, who finished third in the series point standings, was second in the race. Mark Martin, who finished second in the series points, was third in the race in Atlanta.
In his classy style, Martin commented, "We're proud. We gave it everything we had in every race we had." Martin was a seven time winner on the Winton Cup circuit in 1998.
The stars of NASCAR were forced to adapt Sunday. They had never raced or tested under the lights in Atlanta. The lighting system was installed this year so the Indy Racing League could run a night event in Atlanta. The drivers did not disappoint the fans. They raced their hearts out for the fans and for their sponsors. They showed why NASCAR is America's number one spectator sport.
As the championship celebration began, so did the rain. The flashing fireworks heralding Jeff Gordon's third Winston Cup title filled the night air with light and smoke. There was also a mist of champagne as every crew member sprayed their celebration drink into the sky.
There was also a mist in many NASCAR fan's eyes as the curtain is closed on the 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup season. Like children waiting for Christmas, we wait in anticipation for the roar to begin again at Speedweeks 99 in Daytona. February can't get here soon enough.