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The Callahan Report: The drought is over; Gordon wins at Talladega

17 April 2000

Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel

TALLADEGA, AL: Some called it a drought. Jeff Gordon had not won a NASCAR Winston Cup race in thirteen tries. The so-called drought came to an end Sunday as the checkered flag dropped, signaling the conclusion of the DieHard 500 at Talladega Super-Speedway.

By Gordon's standards, he has had a bad string of racing luck. Everyone in the racing world had become accustomed to seeing the brilliantly colored DuPont Monte Carlo visit victory lane at nearly every track on the circuit. The competition's hearts may have sunk a little Sunday. Now that Gordon has sipped the victory champagne again, he and his team may have the motivation they need to again become a dominating force in the sport.

Love him or hate him, most fans in attendance at the DieHard 500 acknowledged Gordon's accomplishment. Showered by as many "boos" as "cheers" during his most recent championship in 1998, Gordon was elated at what he heard after climbing out of his quiet racer in victory lane. The jeers are subsiding.

"Everybody likes a winner," the three-time Winston Cup champion explained. "But no one likes someone who wins too much. I understand that. When the boos were coming, I would sit back and say, 'I don't blame them.' When I was winning 13 races in a season, 10 races in a season . . . that was unheard of."

One explanation for Gordon's return to popularity, at least for this race, is the fact that nobody expected much from him Sunday. He had a dismal qualifying effort. Gordon was the final driver to get into the field on the merit of his speed, starting in 36th spot. Drivers in positions 37 through 43 used provisional rules to get into the race.

"I'm a little shocked," said Gordon, after passing the field on his way to victory. "We were not very fast when we tested here and not very fast when we qualified. But, in the draft, the car was just spectacular."

Gordon's rear-view mirror was equally spectacular. After getting in front near the end of the race, Gordon looked behind him more that in front. He gave some of NASCAR's best drivers a lesson in defensive driving. Just as a competitor would attempt a pass (low or high), Gordon would change his racing line to block the move. He never changed his line more than once for each pass attempt. Doing so could have earned him a penalty. It was a textbook run for the restrictor plate racing expert.

Gordon's drought is more like a "break in the rainstorm" when compared to drivers like Mike Skinner. It was winless Skinner who snaked along behind a swerving Gordon the final two laps of the 188-lap race. Not even Skinner faulted Gordon for his moves.

"The only way I was going to beat him was if I hit him and spun him out and took a chance on hurting somebody," said Skinner who came closer than ever before at winning in the series. "I don't want to win my first race because I knocked somebody out of the race who raced me clean all day."

In addition to ending his worst winless streak since 1994, Gordon joined elite company Sunday. When Gordon took the checkered flag, he became a 50-race winner on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. Rusty Wallace achieved the same feat earlier this season at Bristol. The big difference . . . Wallace is already 50 years old. Gordon has not seen his 30th birthday.

"It was emotional for us," said Gordon in victory Lane. "I know it hadn't been forever, but it had been a while."

The win moved Gordon to 7th place in the series point standings. He came into the day in 12th place. It was the second top-five finish in a row for Gordon. Mark Martin, who led most of the day, took the lead in the Winston Cup points by finishing in sixth place.

The DieHard 500 was the second "restrictor plate" race of 2000. Restrictor plates rob the cars of valuable horsepower and cause the cars to run in a close formation or a "freight-train" pattern. In the first restrictor place race of the year at Daytona, there was little passing. It was a boring race. Some minor rules changes by NASCAR brought excitement back into the picture at Talladega. However, the dangers of restrictor-plate racing still remain.

What appears to be close racing to the fans is nothing but frustration to the drivers. It is more like flying a glider than driving a racecar. The drivers must use the air off of the cars around them to make passes. An even bigger problem is the inevitable danger when someone makes a mistake. There is no place to go other than into the wall or the car next to you when trouble breaks out.

The mistake came on la 138 this year. Two drivers who are used to driving at speeds much faster than what they were driving at Talladega got together on the track. Robby Gordon and Scott Pruett, both former CART drivers who raced at 230 mph on a regular basis, began a 16-car chain reaction accident.

When the smoke cleared, there were many bruised egos, but no broken bones. Luckily for NASCAR, all drivers stayed out of the hospital. In the interest of safety, officials need to address the safety of restrictor plate racing.

Racing in tight quarters and at high speeds is exhilarating to fans, but it is nerve racking to the drivers. Sounds like a good time for a break. NASCAR Winston Cup takes its much deserved break next weekend to celebrate the Easter holiday. Exciting and safer racing will resume in two weeks.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot photos and racing art, please visit The Racing Image Galleries and The Visions of Speed Art Gallery.