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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

For Perspective, Check Gordon's Rearview Mirror

January 02, 1998|SHAV GLICK

The difficult thing in discussing Jeff Gordon is not that he was named driver of the year for the second time in three years. That's easy. The difficult part is putting him in proper perspective among stock car racing's all-time great drivers.

Gordon is 26 and won't be 27 until Aug. 4.

When Dale Earnhardt was 26, he failed to finish his only Winston Cup race. When Richard Petty was 26, he had yet to win a Winston Cup championship. They are NASCAR's all-time leaders, each a winner of seven championships.

Gordon already has won two, in 1995 and 1997. Last year, he and the Rainbow Warriors won 10 races, including the Daytona 500, the Winston Million for sweeping three of the four major superspeedway races and climaxed a second championship season by winning the inaugural California 500 at Fontana.

Ray Evernham, crew chief for Gordon's Rick Hendrick-owned Chevrolet Monte Carlo, is his driver's biggest cheerleader.

"I've worked with the best drivers in the world, guys like Andretti, Unser, Foyt, all of them when I was with the International Race of Champions," Evernham said. "I judge people by their talent and ability, and I think Jeff Gordon is at the level of ability of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Mario Andretti."

Of the 12 voters on the driver-of-the-year panel, 10 voted for Gordon, one each for Trans-Am champion Tom Kendall and CART series winner Alex Zanardi.

Gordon became the only driver other than Bill Elliott to collect the Winston Million when he won the Southern 500 at Darlington after having won at Daytona and Charlotte.

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Predictions: The luster of the Rainbow Warriors will begin to fade--maybe Gordon will win only six or seven races--enough to enable Dale Jarrett to sneak through and become the second son of a former champion to win the Winston Cup championship. Dale's father, Ned, won in 1961 and 1965. Lee Petty won three times in the 1950s and son Richard won seven times. . . . Mark Martin will win the Daytona 500 and frustrate Earnhardt for the 20th time in his quest of stock car racing's most treasured prize.

INDY RACING LEAGUE

The IRL, starting a second year with its own chassis-engine combination--different from Indys past and different from CART--will open the racing season Jan. 24 at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla.

The most noticeable change this season will be the shrinking of the Indy 500 experience, cutting practice from two weeks to one and qualifying from four days to two, May 16-17. The race will be May 24.

Predictions: Billy Boat will win the Indianapolis 500 driving one of A.J. Foyt's cars, becoming the fifth driver to win both Indy and the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix. Boat won his third in a row last Thanksgiving at Ventura. Past winners include Bill Vukovich, Johnnie Parsons, Foyt and Parnelli Jones. . . . Series champion Tony Stewart will show his versatility by winning at least two IRL races and at least two Busch Grand Nationals, but it will be his last season in Indy cars, leaving the IRL without its main attraction in 1999. . . . The breach between the IRL and CART, now impossible to mend, will continue to erode interest in both open-wheel series, damaging the Indy 500 most of all.

CART

When Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. broke from the U.S. Auto Club in 1978 to form its own open-wheel racing organization, it shunned the USAC designation of "champ cars" in favor of "Indy cars."

Now the dispute has gone full circle. Forced to give up the Indy car designation in a legal dispute with Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George, CART has announced that it will call its cars "championship cars."

The season will open March 15 with an oval-track race at Homestead, Fla.

Predictions: Paul Tracy, driving a Reynard-Honda for Barry Green's Team Kool Green, will win the newly named Fed Ex Championship series. . . . Defending champion Zanardi, homesick for his family and friends in Italy, will return to Formula One at year's end. . . . The PacWest duo of Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell will become the dominant team in CART. . . . Toyota will make its first appearance on a podium since joining CART in 1996.

NHRA

When the hot rodders were at Pomona last November, the orgy of speed during the season caused many of the sport's leaders to express concern about safety. After Cory McClenathan ran 321.77 mph in a top fuel car and John Force upped the funny car record to 314.46, the question became, "How fast is too fast?"

The question, as yet unanswered, might crop up again when the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals opens the season for the 38th year at Pomona, Jan. 29-Feb. 1.

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