- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

DARLINGTON, S.C. Through six months of losing, Jeff Gordon was routinely asked when he finally would win a race. His answer was always the same: Winning races is great, but championships are even better.

Now that Gordon has snapped his 31-race winless streak breaking through by bumping Rusty Wallace out of his way to win at Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend the attention has shifted to his bid for a fifth Winston Cup title.

"Never have we counted ourselves out of it," Gordon said. "We just knew that if we were going to be a threat, we had to start performing. Hopefully, [the Bristol win] is the first step to that."

Actually, Gordon was never out of the points chase this season. Although he repeatedly had failed to make it to the winner's circle, his knack for keeping the No.24 Chevrolet on the track had kept him in the title hunt.

Heading into the Southern 500, Gordon has been running at the end of 55-straight races, a modern-day NASCAR record. The consistency had kept him in the top five of the points standings, and his victory at Bristol pulled him into third place, 111 points behind leader Sterling Marlin.

That's got to be a little too close for comfort to the challengers trying to prevent him from repeating as Winston Cup champion.

And it doesn't help the field that they are headed to Darlington Raceway, one of the many tracks Gordon has conquered.

He's got five wins here including a record four-straight Southern 500 victories from 1995 to 1998 finished in the top 10 in 13 of the 19 races he's competed in and led more than 1,100 laps. His lowest finish was a 40th in March 2001, when he failed to finish the race because of engine failure.

That was his last DNF, which started his record-streak and helped him stay positive during the 11 months between victories. Before Bristol, his last win was Sept. 30, 2001.

"When we weren't winning, finishing the races is what kept us in the points chase," Gordon said. "Consistency wins championships and we stayed within striking distance during our winless streak."

It certainly wasn't easy not with the mounting pressure and increased attention the streak brought.

At every single race track this season, Gordon would take his customary spot on the top step of his hauler and face the media. Without fail, someone would always ask, "Is this the week you'll break your streak?"

Crew chief Robbie Loomis said Gordon's ability to stand up to the scrutiny helped the Hendrick Motorsports team keep plugging away.

"Jeff Gordon has really been the glue that's held us together," Loomis said. "The confidence Jeff has because he's won so many championships provides a calming effect on the rest of us. The little things Jeff would say kept us going in the right direction."

Sometimes it was what he didn't say that helped.

There were times Gordon could have pointed fingers at his team, demanding to know why his car couldn't get to the front especially at tracks where he always had success.

Although driver error certainly played its part in the losing, there were plenty of weeks when his car was pure junk and he was never a factor. But Gordon kept the team together instead of tearing it apart by blaming others.

"Jeff has really been the one all year who's been the calmest, the one who calms the waters and soothes us," Loomis said. "Whether it would be a bad practice or a bad race, he would say, 'Hey, we've been on this streak, and everybody is freaking out.'

"Well, I was freaking out, but he kept us looking at that goal of what we were working toward, and that kind of calmed us for a little bit."

So Gordon was the team cheerleader, a much different role then what he had played in years past.

But everything about this year is different.

He's going through a high-profile divorce after seven years of marriage, and his bid to live his life as a single man has been just as public.

After spending his first nine years in Winston Cup as somewhat of a recluse, preferring quiet nights with his wife over bonding sessions with the guys, Gordon is now venturing out of the motorhome a lot more and more on race weekends.

He can suddenly be found playing video games or go-karting with other drivers, grabbing a burger with some old buddies, even walking around the crowded pits at the local dirt tracks, where he mingles with the up-and-coming drivers and signs autographs for the fans.

He organized a charity bowling tournament earlier this month in Indianapolis that drew only A-List racing celebrities, and afterward he grabbed a group and headed out for a night on the town.

It's hardly been the behavior of a driver lamenting a recent run of bad breaks and personal problems.

Maybe that's because Gordon never gave up, knowing that sooner or later confidence and hard work would have him back in the winners circle. And when that happened, everyone would know that Gordon was coming racing toward a fifth title.

"As far as the championship, I think it serves notice to a lot of people that we're not out of it," Gordon said. "I'm not saying that now we're going to run away with it; we've still got a lot of hard work ahead of us. But [the win] is going to do so much for the team morale, and sometimes morale and attitude can take you up several notches performance-wise."


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