Gordon Struggles To Regain Championship Form

What's wrong with Jeff Gordon?

The question trails the three-time Winston Cup champion at every
stop, an annoying reminder of his revamped team's surprising
winless streak that has hit 11 races.

"No one's satisfied at where we are, but we don't look at it
like 'Will we win again?'" Gordon said. "We see our team getting
better, improving from week to week and we know we'll be able to
get back to where we want to be."

Things haven't looked the same since Ray Evernham, Gordon's
longtime mentor and Hendrick team crew chief, left last fall to
head Dodge's return to NASCAR.

Then in the offseason, five of the seven crewmen who made the
Rainbow Warriors the best over-the-wall gang in the business bolted
for Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett's camp.

And Brian Whitesell, the crew chief for consecutive victories in
September after Evernham's resignation, shifted to team manager
with Robbie Loomis taking over as crew chief.

By Gordon's standards, this season's results have been dismal.
His best finish? Consecutive eighths the past two weeks in
Darlington, S.C., and Bristol, Tenn., where he has nine combined
victories.

When Gordon put the No. 24 Chevrolet on the pole for the
Mall.com 400 in Darlington, he said it was "the first time anybody's wanted to talk to me about anything good."

So what's the problem? Is it Loomis? Different crew members? Or
is it simply a slump?

"We knew that this wasn't going to happen overnight," the
28-year-old driver said.

As competitive as NASCAR is, he said, you can't change crew
chiefs "and expect to go out there and just win races."

So far, he hasn't.

An oil leak early in the Daytona 500 dropped him four laps down
and he finished 34th. A week later in Rockingham, N.C., he lost two
laps early and finished 10th. In Las Vegas, he lost a lap when he
made a long pit stop for an adjustment.

Last week at Bristol, he led the most laps, and his crew got him
out the fastest of the leaders during a pit stop. But Gordon
clipped a tire in Steve Park's pits, needed three more stops to fix
things and fell from first to 17th.

"The car was awesome," Gordon said. "It was just my fault for
running into it."

Those things never seemed to happen with Evernham calling the
shots.

The critical relationship between driver and crew chief develops
with time and can't be taken lightly, said Larry McReynolds, one of
the sport's most respected crew chiefs who works with Mike Skinner.

McReynolds is the godfather of the late Davey Allison's children
and was best friends with the racer.

``It got so we didn't have to talk with each other, we could
just look and know what the other wanted,'' McReynolds said.

Skinner and McReynolds try to spend time together away from the
track. ``The bond is there,'' Skinner said, ``and that helps us
when we race.''

Bill Davis, the car owner who put Gordon into a Busch Grand
National car in the early 1990s, said people who focus on the
machines are on the wrong track.

``It's bringing in the right people and keeping open the
communication,'' Davis said. ``That's what's most important.''

Loomis, Gordon said, has come under incredible pressure to
produce Evernham-like results. But everyone in the Hendrick shop
and the No. 24 crew has to establish relationships and duties.

``Sometimes, I'm not sure if I should step in where I used to
before,'' Gordon said.

Gordon believes his relationship with Loomis is growing. The
Darlington pole and Bristol performance show how close they are.

Loomis and Gordon joked about the changes after their qualifying
run in Bristol.

``He said he was waiting on me to get my act together,'' the
crew chief said. ``I told him I was waiting on him.''

No one's ready to panic.

``He's got his act together,'' Loomis said. ``He knows what it
takes to win races and championships. Now, we've just got to get
our team up to his level.''

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2000, Jeff Gordon

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