November 19, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
*A lot is being made of Jeff Gordon winning his fourth Winston Cup title at age 30. And a lot should be made of that.
Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are the only two men ahead of Gordon in number of Cup championships, with seven each. The year Petty turned 30, he won his second title. The year Earnhardt turned 30, he drove for three different car owners and finished seventh in points. True, he already had one Cup in his cabinet, but he was showing no signs of becoming the seven-time champion he would become.
In fact, Earnhardt had such a wild driving reputation, and bent so many chassis, there was a better chance he'd break several car owners before ever breaking any records.
Petty won four over a five-year span between 1971-75. Earnhardt won four in five years between 1990-94, and six in the nine seasons between 1986-94.
Will Gordon build on this streak, as did Earnhardt and Petty, and eventually land on seven titles – or perhaps more? Gordon, you've probably noticed, generally takes the humble route. But his car owner, Rick Hendrick let the cat out of the bag Sunday at Atlanta, following the clinching of the No. 24 team’s fourth championship.
“I think we’ll surely be in the hunt next year,” said Hendrick, himself not exactly given to Ali-style hype. “I think we're going to come back just like we are now. I think we could win seven championships. That’s our goal.”
This is a team that, if you listen to the man behind the wheel, often finds itself in Victory Lane by pure happenstance. It makes you wonder what they might accomplish if they actually set their sights on seven championships.
* Forget Gordon's fourth title.
Forget the great showing this season by Kevin Harvick, as well as the ability of Tony Stewart to take over second place during his season of ongoing turmoil.
Forget Ricky Rudd’s continued rise from deep-field to lead pack.
The most impressive thing I see when looking at the current points standings: Bobby Labonte is sixth, with a shot at overtaking Dale Jarrett for fifth if his snow-tires get a grip Friday in Loudon.
Labonte was buried so deep at times during this season, you couldn’t find him with bloodhounds and a metal detector. At one point in the spring, he was 25th in points. He finally reached the top 10 in mid-summer, got as high as sixth in September, but fell to ninth after a few poor finishes in the fall.
Now, after inheriting Sunday’s win from gas-strapped Jerry Nadeau, Labonte is back to sixth. It’s a far cry from last year's championship season, but in some ways, more impressive, given how bad things were going for so long.
* Is there any doubt Jimmy Spencer has become NASCAR’s answer to Charles Barkley? For every insightful comment those two men make, they make at least one or two others that leave you scratching your head.
At times you think they’re the smartest guys in the room, at other times the dumbest. From a media standpoint, however, it doesn't matter, because we love a guy who speaks first and thinks later.
I was reminded of just how effectively Spencer can fill a notepad last week at Homestead, when I harmlessly (I thought) asked his opinion of another driver with a reputation for compromising sheetmetal – Kevin Harvick.
“I see a guy who can’t admit he made a mistake,” Spencer said with a straight face. “I never said I didn’t make a mistake.”
Spencer then recalled an incident this season at Michigan, and unlike most others in his profession, didn’t mind sharing every little detail.
“He ran into me at Michigan,” Spencer said of Harvick. “He was faster than me, but I raced him hard. He starts hitting my back bumper and lifts my rear wheels off the ground once or twice, at 180 miles an hour. And you don’t (bleeping) do that, but he kept doing it. I was gonna turn him around but I thought, ‘No, we’re going too fast. I better not do that.’
“Then the red flag came out when it started raining. I was walking down the pit area and he came over, and his exact words were, ‘Why the hell don’t you move out of my way? I’m faster than you are.’ I said, ‘You mess with me one more time, I’m gonna put you in the grandstands, and I ain’t gonna lose no sleep over it.’”
Whether Spencer has any right condemning another driver for rough tactics, well, that’s obviously open for debate. But I don’t care. He makes the job easier for guys like me, and as long as he’s around, you’re gonna hear and read a lot of his opinions.