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Gordon Smokes With Any Chief

One of the popular theories in NASCAR was that Jeff Gordon wouldn't win nearly as often if he ever lost crew chief Ray Evernham.

Guess again.

Two Gordon victories in two weeks under Brian Whitesell is certainly proof that the three-time Winston Cup champion can win without the man who called the shots for his first 47 victories.

But even The Kid could have had some doubts, and had said for years that he might not want to race without Evernham. Now, wins in Martinsville, Va., and Concord, N.C., seem to have sold him on Whitesell.

"It's one of those situations where the chemistry is right," Gordon said.

That was always the case with Evernham, but a rash of mechanical problems and accidents early in the season kept them from contending for a record-tying third straight series title. And weighing a promotion from Hendrick Motorsports against starting his own team which Evernham chose probably caused the dynamic duo to slip.

In any case, Gordon appears far more relaxed as he heads to Talladega, Ala., for Sunday's race than he did three weekends ago when he was besieged by questions about Evernham. Gordon finished an embrassing three laps down in that race in Dover, Del., and Evernham wound up climbing from the director's chair for the last time.

"We've got these distractions behind us," said Gordon, who rallied Monday to win the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "The last two weeks have felt like we started all over again."

"We're stepping forward and stepping up, and great things have been happening because of it. I am surprised."

He isn't alone. Dale Earnhardt, considered NASCAR's best driver before Gordon came along four years ago, hadn't expected instant success.

In a way, it's hard for Earnhardt to look at Gordon's team and accept that Evernham is really gone.

"Ray must have forgot his notebook," Earnhardt said of Gordon's victory at Lowe's. "That 24 team really looked good."

Rick Hendrick, who has secured Gordon's future by making him co-owner of the car, never doubted that his new crew chief would mesh with his superstar driver.

"I thought we'd be successful, but still, the distraction is there," Hendrick said. "You don't change the top and not go through some uneasiness."

He describes Whitesell as being cool under fire, and saw immediate evidence of that in Martinsville, where a late-race call by the crew chief proved decisive.

Hendrick says what some insist is a poor season by Gordon who nonetheless has a series-bet seven victories this year never gave him reason to wonder.

"He can drive the wheels off the car," Hendrick said of Gordon, now solidly in position to extend his own record by leading the series in wins for the fifth straight year.

Knowing his line in the box score reads 2-for-2, Whitesell has been joking about retiring as the perfect crew chief. That humor, and his insistence that he's just Evernham's numerical replacement, has enabled Whitesell to function well amid all the hoopla.

"We've proven now we can do it, so every week we go back everybody says, 'You've already won two. What are you going to do next?' " Whitesell said.

Well, maybe Whitesell's line will read 3-for-3 after the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Gordon wouldn't be all that surprised anymore.

And if it comes down to a crucial decision by the new boss of the cast they call the Rainbow Warriors, the star of the show will yield to the wisdom of the director.

"If a guy's got confidence that Michael Jordan can make that shot at the end of the game, they don't mind dishing it off to him," Gordon said. "Eight or nine times out of 10, he probably made it."

©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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