June 11, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Sunday's Winston Cup event in Michigan is Example 1.
Sure, Jeff Gordon won the race, taking another big step in his inevitable (trust me) run toward a fourth Cup title. But if Gordon had been forced to share the post-race spotlight with all those who felt like winners Sunday, victory lane would've had to be as big as Jimmy Spencer's shadow.
In a very big way, Gordon shared victory lane with team owner Rick Hendrick. It was win No. 100 for Hendrick Motorsports, which started its NASCAR endeavor 17 years ago with some fairly deep pockets, a fair amount of know-how, and Geoff Bodine. Along the way, Hendrick fielded winners for a Who's Who of racing greatness - Bodine, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, Ken Schrader, Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte. He also provided the first win for Jerry Nadeau, who has the look of a guy who will win a few more.
But it's Gordon who took Hendrick to another level. No, Gordon probably wouldn't have reached this stature without the Hendrick resources, but my hunch is, Gordon has meant more to the Hendrick dynasty than vice versa. After all, 55 of Hendrick's 100 wins have come courtesy of that sawed-off Hoosier hotshoe.
As for other winners, the Top 10 at Michigan was littered with them. There was rookie-to-be Ryan Newman in fifth place. He went to Michigan to run an ARCA race, but hey, why not take a dip in the deep end of the pool? The result was a lot better than Newman experienced last month when he won the pole for the Coke 600 at Charlotte, then fouled the bed with an early-race solo spin while leading. For a guy who might just do for Roger Penske what Gordon has done for Hendrick (OK, that might be a stretch... but maybe not), there's no better training ground than 200 laps in Winston Cup traffic.
"It's a lot for my confidence, but it's big for the team, too," said Newman, the beefy Boilermaker out of Purdue University. "This is the same race car we had at Charlotte, so it tells you what the potential was at that race track had I not screwed up. This was just a good run."
And what about Hut Stricklin?
"Everything really fell into our hands today and really worked out," said Stricklin, who turned in a moral-victory sixth-place finish in Junie Donlavey's car Sunday.
Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised, since Donlavey fielded a top-10 finisher for Dick Trickle just three years ago, and actually put Jody Ridley in a winner (Junie's only victory since 1950) just... oh, when was that... oh yeah, just 20 years back.
Sunday's Top 10 also included Jeff Burton, and ain't it a shame when he has to be congratulated for a simple seventh-place finish? But it's been that type of year for Jack Roush's new go-to guy. Right behind him was Dave Blaney. And then came Bill Elliott, finally put together a Sunday worthy of a few smiles.
But really, aside from Gordon's Hendrick group - and possibly Ryan Newman - no one left Michigan floating on air quite like Shawna Robinson. It might be a little sexist to say it, but she'd probably never before driven 394 miles without pulling over for a diaper change or potty break. Robinson, who has driven everything from race-trim tractor-trailers to stock cars, made her Cup debut at Michigan, starting 32nd and finishing 34th, three laps down. Her maiden voyage included a late-day spin coming off Turn 2 - no one else was involved, and since she kept it off the wall, she simply changed tires and finished her day's work.
"You have to understand that as hard as it is, what every single driver out there expected me to do was probably crash or get in the way, and I think I did neither one of those things, so my goal was accomplished," said Shawna, who will try to make her second start at Chicago in mid-July. "Believe me, every time I sit in that race car I'll get better, and that's what it's about. The only thing they asked of me today was to finish.
"Hey, my crew is proud of me and that's all that matters because that's who I work with every day and that's who I learn with and that's who I'm going to Chicago with."
But once again, only one driver will have to clear shelf room for the trophy, and that's Gordon, who knows a thing or two about storing trophies. Unlike the week before at Dover, this one didn't look like an arm-out-the-window jaunt to the corner market for milk and bread. This time, Gordon had to battle Ricky Rudd - and hard. Rudd, running second, tested the waters on the next-to-last lap, going high into the final corner then diving low alongside Gordon coming off Turn 4.
Gordon didn't give up the front spot completely, staying on the outside of Rudd, and when Rudd's Ford wouldn't get the proper bite entering the first turn, Gordon shot ahead and stayed there. In retrospect, of course, Rudd wishes he'd saved that 199th-lap move for the final circuit.
"I probably should have waited until the checkered flag, but I didn't really know if I could get a bite out there and, sure enough, I did," said Rudd, still looking for his first win in the famed No. 28 car.
While the garage is overflowing with drivers who'd volunteer to win by half a lap, Gordon admitted there's something special about a cliffhanger.
"There's some thrill, and something just fires you up to make those fans stand up and go wild no matter who won the race," he said. "Anytime it's a nail-biter right down to the finish and a guy passes you taking the white flag, and you get back ahead of him, that's something. I certainly do enjoy that."
Unfortunately for those who crave last-lap fireworks, followed by screaming and finger-pointing and maybe even the throwing of hands, these weren't the two guys you wanted to watch.
"Ricky knows when it comes down to the final lap that I'm going to run him hard but I'm going to try to run him clean," said Gordon. "I expect the same from him and that's what I got."