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FOCUS ON MOTOR RACING / CALIFORNIA 500

Conventionally Speaking

After Tense Victories in the Past, Gordon Is Hoping to Win Somewhat More Conservatively

April 29, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time Jeff Gordon raced at California Speedway, he finished on fumes. But he still managed to finish first.

The last time Gordon drove in the International Race of Champions, he finished in the rain at Daytona International Raceway. But he won anyway.

This week, back in Fontana, Gordon hopes to win both the Winston Cup California 500 and its IROC companion feature--in a more conventional manner.

"We're definitely not planning on making this year's 500 into an economy run again," Gordon said of Sunday's race. "You just don't plan on things like that. Circumstances like happened last year develop during the race. You just have to adjust and hope you make the right decision."

Crew chief Ray Evernham, who decided in mid-race that Gordon could skip the last scheduled pit stop if he conserved enough fuel, made the right decision. Barely.

"After the race started, there were long stretches of green flag racing with no cautions, so Ray decided we should stretch out and get an extra lap or two before each stop," Gordon said. "You keep doing that each time, picking up another lap and another lap until maybe you're five or six laps--maybe even as many as 10--out of sync with the other drivers.

"Trying to conserve fuel can be nerve-racking, though. You've got to do it by not running hard, easing off the gas going into the corners and drafting off other cars. The worst part is that you really don't know if you'll make it. And in the back of your mind are the championship points. It's one thing to stretch it out to win the race, but you sure don't want to run out of gas and lose a lot of points."

Gordon's Rainbow Warriors cut it so close that he had to take a shortcut, driving his Chevrolet Monte Carlo through the tri-oval grass, over the turf logo, to get to victory lane.

"On the final lap when I came off [Turn] 4, I just gingerly put my foot on the gas and said, 'Oh, please, just let it go all the way.' Once I knew I had the momentum where I could knock it into neutral if I had to, that's when I got excited."

Gordon also is back at Fontana as defending Winston Cup champion after a remarkable year during which he won the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C., for the third time, and the Winston Million, besides the inaugural California 500.

This year, however, the picture for the Hendrick Motorsports team isn't quite as bright as it was after nine races last year.

By this time last year, Gordon had won four races and was third in points, only 89 behind Dale Jarrett. This year he has won only two races and is fifth, though only 73 points behind Rusty Wallace.

"Look at the Ford Taurus and how really strong it is and I think you'll see a major reason for the difference," he said. "It's been tough to beat. We were fortunate to win a couple of races, taking advantage of the short tracks where the difference isn't as great, where the aerodynamic downforce isn't such an issue.

"On the bigger tracks, like California, Las Vegas, Charlotte and Michigan, the new Taurus has a serious advantage. We'll hope the latest rule change [cutting an inch off each side of the rear spoiler on Fords] will help, but it wasn't what we [Chevrolet and Pontiac teams] were looking for. At Texas [with the new rule in effect] the Taurus still pretty much dominated."

Mark Martin led a 1-2-3 Ford finish at Texas.

"It's like when Chevy came out with the new Monte Carlo a few years ago and we really dominated, but NASCAR cut things off our car until everybody was equal," Gordon said. "Now, basically, we're on the other side of the deal and we're looking for some more help.

"Right now, we're trying to be the best Chevy, and hope that's enough."

There is talk that Gordon may form his own team in the Busch Grand National series, the way Dale Earnhardt and others have. Gordon says that's a possibility, but maybe later.

"Driving for Rick Hendrick as part of his team and working with Ray Evernham is just fine for me right now," he said. "I believe when you've got a good thing, you don't want to try and ruin it. I've got a contract through the year 2000 with Hendrick Motorsports and I plan on doing that and--who knows?--many years down the road after that.

"Several sponsors have shown interest in backing a Busch team with Ray and me, but nothing serious. It's something we might consider some day, maybe with a limited schedule, but we're not interested right now. We have enough to think about from race to race, trying to win a third championship.

"We want to keep life as pleasant for Rick Hendrick as we can, and winning is one way to do it. The team has won three [championships] in a row, even though he hasn't been with us the last couple of years. With us in person that is, we know he's with us in spirit."

In addition to Gordon's championships in 1995 and 1997, Terry Labonte won in another of Hendrick's cars in 1996.

Hendrick is undergoing treatment for leukemia at his home in North Carolina.

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