Now, there can be no denying Jeff Gordon's place among the best drivers in NASCAR's 50-year history. With a dramatic victory Sunday, in fact, the 27-year-old became the youngest star of them all.
Gordon clinched his third championship in four years about a third of the way through the ACDelco 400, then punctuated his day by catching and passing Rusty Wallace with eight laps to go to claim his 12th victory this year.
"Today was just a killer day," Gordon said. "The third championship in the last four years, I'm just shaking my head. I just can't believe it."
The victory made Gordon the youngest three-time Winston Cup champion in history and only the seventh driver ever to win that many titles.
Capping the day in Victory Lane only made it that much sweeter, not only for him and crew chief Ray Evernham, but also for the Rainbow Warriors, Gordon's vaunted pit crew credited with creating much of their dominance.
"Those guys that are down there working on that car, that's what gives us the edge over the competition," Evernham said. "It's team and everybody does their part and you don't have to worry about someone else's part."
"We get along good. We work hard together and the team beats with one heart. It's true. It's unified and that's something that you can't explain. It's something that you have to be part of to feel."
Gordon ran in the top 10 most of the day, and used a quick pit stop to move into second place behind Wallace with 40 laps to go. After Wallace pulled ahead, Gordon gradually caught him, talking him for about 20 laps.
Riding in a high groove while Wallace stayed low through turns three and four, Gordon kept cutting into the lead until he finally slipped by on lap 385 of 393, pulling away for a .520-second victory over Dale Jarrett.
Gordon celebrated by making donuts in the grass on the frontstretch near the emblem marking NASCAR's 50th anniversary. Then he circled the 1.017-mile track in his No. 24 Chevrolet, his 394th and sweetest lap of them all.
"To know what Ray and I have gone through the last three or four years and what we've wanted to accomplish by winning the race and the championship at the same time, today just kind of sums up our whole year," he said.
| Jeff Gordon had two reasons to celebrate Sunday. (AP) |
The victory moved Gordon within one victory of Richard Petty's modern-day mark of 13 in a season with one race remaining, and gave him the most in a season since Darrell Waltrip won that many in the 1982 season.
Petty and Dale Earnhardt have each won seven championships, while Waltrip, Lee Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough are the only others to win three. Pearson had been the youngest, winning his third at 31 in 1969.
The title gave Hendrick Motorsports a NASCAR record four consecutive championships -- Terry Labonte beat Gordon by 37 points in 1996 -- and gave Gordon a chance to match Yarborough's record three straight next season.
Jarrett, who spent four days in an Arizona hospital with gall stones and wasn't released until Thursday, led five times for a race-high 195 laps. He finished second in a Ford despite still fighting the effects of his illness.
It was the fifth time in the last six races that Jarrett has been second at The Rock. He's still seeking his first victory on the 1.017-mile oval.
Wallace was third, Martin fourth and Jeff Burton fifth, all in Fords.
"I just wore my tires out," Wallace said. "I really thought I had plenty to win the race with and right there at the end they started really giving up on me. I saw Gordon coming and there was nothing I could do."
Martin, who has locked up second place in the final point standings for the third time in his career, said he didn't feel like he came up short.
"I just hope I can have another (season) this good," said Martin, whose seven victories are second on the circuit. "It's been the best year of my life, I just hope and pray that I can be so blessed again."
Gordon won for the 32nd time in the last three years and 41st time overall, a figure exceeded by only 12 drivers in Winston Cup history, and earned $111,575, pushing his earning for the season to $6,011,417.
The average speed was a track ecord 128.423 mph -- easily eclipsing Ricky Rudd's 1996 mark of 122.320. The race was slowed only four times for 25 laps by cautions, also a record. There were 20 lead changes among 10 drivers.
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