After all the hoopla over the Daytona 500 and Jeff Gordon’s leading a 1-2-3 finish of Rick Hendrick’s cars in stock car racing’s Super Bowl, the reality is that Sunday’s Goodwrench Service 400 at Rockingham, N.C., will be worth the same number of points toward NASCAR’s Winston Cup championship.
“Sometimes you can lose sight of how important Rockingham and Richmond [March 2] are in the big picture, after spending nearly two weeks working and talking and stuff like that down at Daytona,” Gordon said while on a whirlwind
tour of New York to celebrate his victory. “At the end of the year, though, those points from Rockingham and Richmond look just like the ones from Daytona.”
The Hendrick team faced an added problem of having to build a new rainbow-colored Chevrolet Monte Carlo to replace the one that won last Sunday. That car was presented to Daytona USA, where it will remain for a year as the centerpiece in the multimillion-dollar museum-salesroom, where NASCAR is on display.
Dale Jarrett’s winning car last year was the first to go into the Daytona USA complex. There is a provision on the entry blank that the winning car must be loaned for a year.
“You always hate to part with a race car that’s as good as this one,” Gordon said. “But I’ve got plenty of confidence in the guys that they can build another one. Hopefully, it will be even better. Each time I get a new car, I feel like it’s better than the last one.”
While crew chief Ray Evernham and the Hendrick team were preparing for Sunday’s 400-mile race on the mile oval, Gordon was enjoying a suite at the Waldorf, doing talk shows and appearing on David Letterman’s show with Bruce Willis.
“As big as this [hotel] room is, I feel like I’ve already won the championship,” Gordon said.
He did win it in 1995 and last year was a close runner-up to Terry Labonte, one of his teammates.
“I think Terry and me finishing 1-2 last year and the three of us finishing together last Sunday shows the value of multicar teams,” he said. “If you only have one car, there’s only one thing you’ve got to focus on--one car, one driver, one pit crew, one engine. Sometimes that can be an advantage.
“At the same time, if you have two or three cars and combine all the efforts and thoughts and ideas from three different crew chiefs and three separate teams and drivers, you can actually not only improve one team, but you can improve all three teams and take them to another level.”
Bill Elliott, who was leading the Daytona 500 until Gordon, Labonte and Ricky Craven swept past him in one daring move late in the race, is sticking with his one-car concept. The fan favorite from Dawsonville, Ga., named NASCAR’s most popular driver for the 11th time last year, owns and runs his own team this season.
“It’s hard enough to do one car, and I want to strive to make this deal the best deal that I possibly can,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what the future is going to bring, but I would rather hope to stay a one-car deal.
“I know the three Hendrick guys teamed up on me, but what hurt me was when Dale [Earnhardt] went out. I figured he and I would fight it out, then he got taken out and all of a sudden Labonte was on the high side and Jeff went to the low side, and I was the cheese in the sandwich. Once you’re in that position, there’s nothing you can do.
“Finishing fourth, after leading that close to the end, was disappointing. But, on the other hand, I’ve got to feel great when you look back at where we were. Eight months ago, I was laying just about flat on my back [with a broken leg after an accident at Talladega], so from that standpoint, maybe I didn’t win the race, but the other guys knew we were back.”
Earnhardt is defending champion in Sunday’s race.
“We came back after a disappointment [second by .12 of a second to Jarrett] at Daytona last year and won at Rockingham,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know why we can’t do it again. We need a win to get back in the championship. We didn’t get many points last week.”
Earnhardt earned 75 points after finishing 31st, including five bonus points for leading the race. Gordon leads with 180.
Rick Mast lives in Virginia and drives for a new team in a car sponsored by Remington Arms, so it might not be surprising that he relates his failure to qualify for last Sunday’s Daytona 500 with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, also a Virginian.
“Robert E. Lee put a team together for the seven-day battle of Richmond, but he went to Gettysburg and got his butt whipped with a new team,” Mast said.
“It was basically a new bunch of people. He made a lot of mistakes. But when that deal was over at Gettysburg, he kind of pulled his bootstraps together and said, ‘To hell with this,’ and he started kicking butt. And he basically kicked everybody’s butt. He had a bad day at Appomattox, but in the long run he was good.
“That’s kind of the way I’m looking at this deal. We’re going to be back straightaway and we’re going to kick some butt.”
Four-time world champion Alain Prost has taken over the French Ligier team and will field Mugen-Honda powered cars for drivers Olivier Panis of France and Shinji Nakano of Japan. The season will start with the Australian Grand Prix on March 9 in Melbourne. Next season, Prost said, his cars will be powered by Peugeot V-10 engines with a budget estimated at $53 million.
After Manfred von Brauchitsch, 92, who drove the first winning Mercedes at the Nurburgring in 1934, had witnessed tests of the new McLaren-Mercedes by David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, he commented, “The car looks exciting. If I were a few years younger, I would have asked for a test drive.”
Don’t be surprised at anything John Force might do. The colorful funny car champion shocked the drag racing fraternity at the Winternationals in Pomona when, in mid-event, he changed teammate Tony Pedregon’s funny car look from Pontiac to Ford. The Winston drag racing season resumes this weekend at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz., and Pedregon’s car may change again--back to Pontiac. Force has been in New York ironing out contract details with Pontiac.
Alex Zanardi, the Italian driver who made the unforgettable last-lap pass at Laguna Seca last October to deny Bryan Herta his first victory in the season’s final race, is picking up where he left off. Zanardi, in one of Chip Ganassi’s Reynard-Hondas, was the fastest car in CART’s final practice session before the season opener, March 2, at Homestead, Fla. Zanardi bettered the Laguna Seca track record with a lap at 118.806 mph, followed closely by Brazil’s Mauricio Gugelmin, 118.359 in his Reynard-Mercedes.
CART will sanction the Super Touring championships in North America, which will open its season April 11-13 as part of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. . . . Bobby Rahal’s team has joined Textron Automotive to sponsor Tom Gloy’s Ford Mustang Cobra and driver Mike Borkowski in the Trans-Am series.
Davy Jones, who suffered head injuries in an accident Jan. 23 in Orlando, Fla., expects to return home to Lake Tahoe, Nev., next week. He has been recuperating in Indianapolis while undergoing treatment at Methodist Hospital. Although Jones plans to resume driving with Galles Racing International, team owner Rick Galles has named Kenny Brack of Sweden to drive in the remaining IRL races, including the Indianapolis 500. Brack finished second in the European Formula 3000 series last year. Before testing at Phoenix, Brack’s experience on ovals was one race at New Hampshire in 1993 in the Barber Saab series.
Motor Racing Notes
SPRINT CARS--Casey Shuman, 17, son of Sprint Car Racing Assn. champion Ron Shuman, will make his debut racing against his father Saturday night when the SCRA runs the first of 20 races at Perris Auto Speedway. J.J. Yeley, winner of the season opener at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, and the winner of the first race held at the year-old Perris track, is also entered.
SUPERCROSS--The American Motorcyclist Assn.'s stadium motocross series continues to be one of motor racing’s biggest attractions. The Supercross attracted 50,815 last week in 25-degree weather in Indianapolis, where Jeff Emig won his second main event. Defending champion Jeremy McGrath, riding a Suzuki and not a Yamaha as reported last week, is fourth in points behind Doug Henry, Emig and Larry Ward after five events. The next race is Saturday night in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
TRANS-AM--UCLA graduate Tom Kendall will begin his pursuit of a record fourth championship when the Trans-Am season opens a 14-race schedule Sunday with the Kash N’ Karry Grand Prix on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The La Canada driver, in a Ford Mustang Cobra, became the first official three-time champion last year. The late Mark Donohue was the leading driver three times, but in one of those years there was no championship at stake. Main challenges are expected from Dorsey Schroeder, 1996 runner-up, also in a Cobra, and Chevrolet Camaro drivers Greg Pickett and Paul Gentilozzi.