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New Challenges for Gordon at Darlington

March 21, 2004|Mike Harris | Associated Press

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Jeff Gordon had little trouble taming Darlington Raceway's odd oval -- until last year.

The four-time NASCAR champion leads all active drivers with six victories on the egg-shaped, 1.366-mile track as he heads into today's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

Only David Pearson (10) and the late Dale Earnhardt (9) have won more on NASCAR's original superspeedway.

Along with those wins, Gordon has 11 top fives and 14 top 10's in 22 career starts at Darlington and has led 18 events for a total of 1,378 laps, the most of any active driver and almost 500 more than his closest pursuer.

Last year was different, though, with Gordon's failing to finish in the top 10 in either race here. It's the first time that has happened since 1993, his rookie season.

"Darlington got the best of us last year," Gordon said. "We don't want that to happen again this year. I hope that doesn't happen again for another 10 years."

Strangely, much of Gordon's success at Darlington has come in the second race of the year, the Southern 500. He has won five times in that event and has an average finish of 7.6 overall.

His only spring victory came in 1996 and Gordon's average finish in that event is 16.9.

"We always seem to run well at Darlington," Gordon said. "I don't know why we've had more success in the Southern 500."

Gordon could use a good performance Sunday, considering his best finish in four starts this season was eighth in the Daytona 500. Since then, he has finished 10th, 15th and 10th, placing him fifth in the standings, 130 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth.

But it isn't going to be easy to overcome "The Track Too Tough to Tame" this time.

The narrow oval with the tight turns may even be tougher than ever with the addition of the SAFER wall barriers. The installation of the barriers, which protrude about 2 feet from the concrete wall, has decreased the amount of racing surface in the turns.

"This place was difficult to drive before the changes," Gordon said. "We've always run so close to the wall, sometimes even hitting it in the past. Now we have less track to work with before we hit the wall."

The barriers, designed to cushion impact in crashes, have either been installed or will be put in at all Cup tracks by the end of 2004, but Darlington is the only one so far at which they may infringe on the racing line.

"I applaud tracks for installing the new walls," Gordon said. "Unlike most tracks that have the SAFER walls, we'll have to adjust our line here."


There have been some great rookie seasons in recent history. Just think back to Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart won two poles and three races, piled up 21 top-10 finishes and wound up fourth in the points in 1999. Harvick, who started in the second race of the 2001 season as a replacement for Dale Earnhardt, went on to record two wins, 16 top-10s and finish ninth in the standings.

Newman and Johnson faced off in 2002's rookie race and put on a spectacular battle. Johnson put up three wins, four poles, 21 top 10s and finished fourth in the points, but Newman's one victory combined with six poles, 14 top fives, 22 top 10s and sixth in the championship was enough to nip Johnson for Rookie of the Year.

Having a first season like that is a mighty big order, but Kasey Kahne is showing he might just be up for it.

Since an engine failure at Daytona relegated him to 41st place in his Cup debut, Kahne has finished second to defending series champion Matt Kenseth twice -- once by inches -- and came in third last Sunday in Atlanta. That left the precocious 23-year-old fourth in the points coming to Darlington.

"It's way too early to be talking about having a rookie season like any of those guys," said Kahne, who replaced former series champion Bill Elliott in the No. 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge. "But our start is a really big boost, not just for my confidence but for the whole team.

"We all had a lot of high expectations of things we were going to do this year, but nobody knew if we could actually do it or not. I think it keeps building confidence for all of us, and mine is as high as its ever been in stock cars."

Teammate Jeremy Mayfield is also off to a good start and is seventh in the points, the first time both Evernham drivers have been ranked in the top 10 in the standings since the team began full-time competition in 2001.


Johnny Mantz started 43rd and went on to win the inaugural Darlington race in 1950. Since then, only four drivers have won from a starting position farther back than 15th.

They include Herb Thomas (23rd in the fall of 1954), Bobby Labonte (37th in the fall of 2000), Ward Burton (37th in the fall of 2001) and last spring's winner, Ricky Craven, who started 31st.

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