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Jeff Gordon and the Million

31 August 1997

DARLIINGTON, SC - Throughout the weekend at Darlington Raceway Winston Cup drivers, crew chiefs and owners have offered their thoughts on Jeff Gordon's chance at becoming the second driver in history to win the Winston Million.

Darrell Waltrip is all for the Hendrick Motorsports driver pocketing the cash. "Here's a guy who's got an opportunity to win a million dollars," said the veteran driver. "I'm pulling for him myself. It's good for the sport. A lot of attention has been drawn to him having a shot at it. He's on center stage right now as far as the sport goes. Not with just us here in the audience but all over the country. Guys have got to quit worrying about what's good for them individually and start worrying about what's good for all of us."

But if you believe that Waltrip is willing to roll over "for the good of the sport, think again. "I'm a race driver," Waltrip said emphatically. "I'm a competitor. If it came down to the last lap of the race and it was me and him, you can believe one thing. He's in trouble if I can get that close -- million dollars or no million dollars. Right now, a win would be worth a million dollars to me."

The owner/driver of the #17 Parts America Chevrolet can relate to the pressure that Gordon must be feeling this weekend as all eyes are upon him. Waltrip had his shot at the big bucks in 1989 but saw it slip away after an encounter with the the wall in (then) turns three and four. "If I remember right, I got a lap down," said Waltrip. "We got the car good enough to run up front, but we were a lap down. I got into the corner too hard and got into the wall and that was the end of that. I panicked."

Waltrip points out that Gordon, however, has even more at stake this season. "Jeff has a couple of things to worry about," he explained. "I wasn't trying to win the championship in '89. He's still got to worry about that, too. He's got a pretty heavy load to tow."

Larry McClure, owner and team manager of the #4 Kodak Gold Film Monte Carlo driven by Sterling Marlin, agrees with Waltrip. "It would be good for everybody if Gordon wins," he said. "If we don't win, I really hope he does. It would be good for the sport and the fans and it would be good to see those guys put the money in their pockets. That deal creates a lot of excitement. The more excitement you create, the bigger the fan base you build up."

McClure also feels that sour grapes is all part of the deal. "People may say they don't want Gordon to win the Winston Million," he stated, "but I think deep down they all want him to win it. When you're on top and you've been beating everybody, some jealousy or envy is normal. Everytime Gordon is introduced he gets a lot of boos, but you hear a lot of people cheering for him, too. It's not bad when people boo you. That means they're paying attention to you."

Andy Graves, who serves as the crew chief for Gordon's teammate Ricky Craven and the Budweiser Chevrolet, said, "I won't be betting against him. I think his chances are pretty good right now. He seems to rise to the occasion for things like this and the pressure doesn't get to him. He turns the intensity level up a notch when it comes to these deals. I know Ray (Evernham, Gordon's crew chief) is pretty relaxed. Usually when he's relaxed he knows Junior (Gordon) is ready. I'm pretty sure he'll be right there in the zone where ne needs to be."

Fellow competitor Bobby Labonte was asked whether a win by someone other than Gordon would invoke the wrath of the fans who want to be witness to history. "I don't really know what that would do," he replied. "A million dollars is a lot of money. There ain't no doubt about it. That's a lot of unmarked twenty's in briefcases. That's awfully exciting and I'm glad Jeff's got an opportunity to do that. If I had the same chance, I'd want them to say the same thing. At the same time, we want to win a race, too. We're just going to go out there and do what we do normally every weekend. If somebody spoils it for him, somebody spoils it for him."

There are 42 drivers who would love the chance to play the spoiler and one with his eye on the biggest single-race prize of them all. And they all will be dealing with one of the most treacherous tracks on the Winston Cup Circuit. In a matter of hours we'll know who The Lady smiled upon.

Lori Vizza - The Auto Channel