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The Callahan Report: Gordon & Martin Make NASCAR's 50th Anniversary Memorable

14 October 1998

By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
DAYTONA BEACH, FL: As the 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup season winds down, it is time to take a look at the two standout stars of the year. Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have made NASCAR's 50th anniversary one of the most memorable and exciting racing seasons ever. The grit, sweat, desire and class of both drivers have made the NASCAR Winston Cup series America's number one spectator sport.

Jeff Gordon

Try as they may, the competition in the NASCAR Winston Cup series simply cannot catch Jeff Gordon. They are not giving up, but the chase is getting out of reach. Gordon seems as though he is made out of the same DuPont product that is displayed on his car. He repels bad luck. With the exception of one race earlier this season at Richmond, the competition can't "stick" with Gordon when it comes to racking up Winston Cup points.

There is always one exception.

Mark Martin has given the youngster from Indiana more headaches than there are hot dog wrappers at the end of the Daytona 500. When Jeff Gordon sees a big Valvoline "V" filling up his rear view mirror it stands for one thing....Vicious fight to the end.

Mark Martin

Unfortunately for Mark Martin, one man's bad luck is another's good fortune. Martin hasn't had much bad luck, but he has had just enough to almost put Jeff Gordon in a "coast-home" mode. It's not that Martin is having a bad racing season at all. As a matter of fact, he is having the best season of his illustrious racing career. The problem is that he picked a the same year to do it as Gordon is having the best season of his young career.

This is not to say that Gordon has the championship in his back pocket. October and November have notoriously been terrible months for Gordon. He has never won a race in the final two months of any Winston Cup season. In fact, he typically makes more mistakes in the latter months of the season. He even slow-speed crashed on the pit road during practice last year in Atlanta at the end of the year. That blunder allowed Dale Jarrett to close within 14 points of Gordon in the championship hunt.

Martin has only had three bad races this season. He has been in victory lane seven times. In most cases, those kind of numbers would easily make a NASCAR Winston Cup driver the star of the season....the Champion. Martin's misfortunes at Daytona (engine), Darlington (engine) and Talladega (the big wreck) MAY have been just enough to eliminate him from his first Winston Cup title.

Much of Gordon's success comes from the way he and those around him approach each NASCAR Winston Cup season. It is all about "team." Rarely will you ever hear Jeff Gordon say the word "I." Every sentence concerning his driving on the race track contains the word "we." Gordon is the only one in the car, but the words "we" are used to describe how good or how bad the car was on any given Sunday afternoon. Gordon and his crew chief Ray Evernham, along with the Rainbow Warriors pit crew, have always approached races as a team.

Gordon is well on his way to his third Winston Cup title in four years. He finished second in the championship the other year. All this before he has reached the age of 30. He is still on his way up the ladder of success.

One has to wonder just how long this ride will last. Actually, there may be some bleak seasons ahead for Gordon in the not so distant future. Gordon's team has changed very little since he burst onto the Winston Cup circuit. There are some wrinkled, aged faces turning the wrenches on Gordon's DuPont Chevrolet. There are more grey hairs in Gordon's garage than there are raindrops and Indy during the month of May. The gold watch retirement ceremonies can't be far away.

Change can upset a team. It happens in other sports such as baseball, basketball, and football. After personnel changes are made, it takes a year or so to re-find the winning combination. Jeff Gordon has nothing to prove as a driver. It will be up the crew chief Evernham to show his skill as a manager when the faces behind the scenes begin to change. It will be Evernham's job to reassemble the team as key people on the DuPont team decide it is time to quit traveling 50 weeks a year.

Mark Martin has approached the 1998 season in the same manner as Gordon. He is just a tick off the mark, but it has been one of the best battles in recent memory. If Gordon inherits some of Martin's bad luck in the remaining Winston Cup races, the already exciting championship race will become a "stand-up-in-your-living-room-and-scream" season.

As the season winds down, sit back, enjoy, and remember with fondness NASCAR's 50th year of thrills

Editors Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more) can be viewed in The Racing ImageGalleries and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.