Brief Lead Gives Gordon NASCAR Series Title
Even a sour note at the end couldn’t keep Jeff Gordon from savoring the sweetness of his first Winston Cup championship.
“Yeah, I’d rather have finished with a win,” the 24-year-old driver said after wrapping up the title despite finishing 32nd in Sunday’s season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“This is not the way we wanted to end it, but we wanted to end it as the champion, and we did that. I’m just elated. . . . For me to be the Winston Cup champion is more than I even know how to comprehend. I’m so excited, I don’t know what to do or say.”
Series runner-up Dale Earnhardt, who chopped a deficit of 305 points to only 34 in the final five races of the 31-race season, had no such problem. Earnhardt, 44, sent a message to the driver he calls “Wonder Boy,” trampling the field by leading 268 of the 328 laps on the 1.5-mile oval.
Taking a shot at the youngster, Earnhardt said, “I guess milk will be flowing in New York [at the awards banquet Dec. 1] instead of champagne.”
Earnhardt was trying to become the first driver to win eight Winston Cup titles. He and the retired Richard Petty have seven each.
This was his record-tying seventh victory at Atlanta, his fifth of the season and 68th of his career.
Earnhardt averaged a track-record 163.632 m.p.h., breaking his own mark of 156.849 set in 1990.
Meanwhile, Gordon had one of his most frustrating races of the season, struggling with handling and finishing 14 laps behind Earnhardt’s black No. 3.
It didn’t matter, though. The championship officially became Gordon’s when he led a lap early in the race.
Gordon needed only to finish 41st or better in the 42-car field, or to lead at least one lap, to become the second-youngest driver to win the Winston Cup title in NASCAR’s 47-year history. The only younger driver was Bill Rexford, 23, in 1950.
The title comes with a $1.3 million bonus from the series sponsor and close to another $1 million from the series point fund, making Gordon the first driver to earn more than $4 million in a season.