Racing Beat: The seeds of success

Jeff Gordon worked hard to become tops in racing.

He has already won four Cup championships and has visited victory lane 79 times. His driving prowess has resulted in more than $86 million in earnings.

And the new father – now 36 – is having yet another memorable season.

Jeff Gordon came into Cup as something of an outsider and in his early days admitted he was overconfident at times. And though he refuses to take his full share of the credit, he is a big reason NASCAR has exploded beyond its Southern roots.

His first win came in Richard Petty’s last race, which – whether anyone knew it at the time or not – signaled a whole new era in the sport.

“At the time I just thought it was cool to be in the same race Richard Petty was in,” Gordon says. “There have been a lot of people who’ve helped the sport grow, and I’m just glad to be part of it.”

In 2001, with Gordon driving and crew chief Robbie Loomis preparing the Chevrolet owned by Rick Hendrick, the multi-colored No. 24 machine wound up in victory lane six times and Gordon won the points race by a comfortable margin. It was his fourth season crown, and it catapulted him to legend status.

Many have suggested he never “worked” for his success, but the Indiana native made a down payment on a racing career early on, getting his USAC license at 16 instead of the customary age of 18 and moving up the ranks with incredible speed. He took Rookie of the Year honors in 1993, becoming the first driver to cop those awards in both Winston Cup and Busch Series racing. He also won one of the 125-mile qualifiers at Daytona, the first rookie to do so since 1963.

A year later Gordon found himself in victory lane twice, winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indy and also finishing first in NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

In just his third year in Cup racing, Gordon grabbed his first season title and became the youngest champ of the modern era, scoring seven victories along the way and earning almost $4.5 million – the most cash in a single season in the history of stock car racing.

In 1997 Gordon won his second championship. Gordon took 10 checkers – in addition to winning the Winston Million – and became NASCAR’s most dominant driver. He picked up his third points title a year later, exceeding his 1997 accomplishments with 13 victories and a four-race win streak, a modern record.

In 2001, “Flash” Gordon won six checkers, with an astounding 19 top-5 showings and 21 top-10s.

Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt each have seven big trophies, while Gordon is in third place with four, ahead of such greats as Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Lee Petty.

State of the Union
Car of Tomorrow and increase in penalties are hot topics for 2008

In a season that has featured as much big news off the track as it has on, NASCAR Chief Executive Officer Brian France couldn’t be happier.

“I will tell you that all important goals that we set out at the beginning of the year, we’re either meeting them or exceeding them,” France says, “the Car of Tomorrow being the most important one. Our vision of how we thought that was going to go has gone very well.” So well, in fact, France says, that the league’s accelerated the launch. “Every Nextel Cup event,” he says, will feature the COT.

The hottest topic for France involves penalties and suspensions. This year NASCAR has levied unprecedented punishment for teams, including six-race suspensions for Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus, crew chiefs for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, respectively. Earlier in the season Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team was hammered as well.

The teams are starting to get the message.

“We feel very strongly that we’re going to be very, very tough on people that test us with the Car of Tomorrow,” France says, adding that the principle behind the car is keeping teams from being able to alter it in illegal ways. “We have kept a very steady theme that we’re going to continue to escalate the penalties.”

France says the league will continue to adjust the penalties until they’re right, without resorting to “custom” penalties. Suspending a driver will always be a possibility, though it would be a last resort, France says.

“We’d like to make the deterrent significant enough that that isn’t necessary for us to do,” he says. “But are we willing to go there? Of course we would. We have in the past, and we will in the future.”

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