Tragedy To Triumph

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LOUDON, N.H. – The 2001 season began in tragedy for Richard Childress Racing. Dale Earnhardt, its driver, its leader, was had been killed at Daytona.

The tragedy likely would have ruined a lot of race teams, but RCR isn’t like a lot of race teams. And Friday at New Hampshire International Speedway, in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season finale, the team shone in splendor once again.

Robby Gordon, who recently was announced as the full-time driver of the No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevy at RCR, won the New Hampshire 300 to bring down the curtain on a wild and strange 2001 season. He bumped Jeff Gordon – who led 258 of the 300 laps Friday – and caused Gordon to wreck in the final few laps.

But a victory is a victory, especially for Robby Gordon, whom many doubted would ever win a Winston Cup race on an oval track.

“This just shows the caliber of people at RCR,” Childress said. “We started off on the lowest low. To come back and win a race with Robby Gordon on an oval, it’s a tremendous high.

“But nothing will ever replace the void that will always be there for all of us.”

Yes, in this sport, Earnhardt had the stature of two men. His legacy lives on in his replacement, Kevin Harvick, and now in Gordon. The two drivers won three times for RCR in 2002, more than Earnhardt and Mike Skinner won for RCR last season.

“It just shows you how good Dale was and what (kind of) team he helped build,” Gordon said. “He was here for many years with Richard – I know he was just the driver – as a partner.”

Gordon, as a driver, is a little bit like Earnhardt: aggressive almost to a fault, hard-nosed, no-nonsense. Gordon is all about going fast, but sometimes been a little too fast for his own good – with his words, too.

But Childress has been a calming influence, and a willing listener. Some owners believe they know what’s best and don’t listen to the driver. Gordon ran into a similar situation with Morgan-McClure Motorsports, where team owner Larry McClure said his team wasn’t at fault.

Gordon was out after five races in that ride. Friday was Gordon’s eighth race with RCR’s No. 31 team. Maybe McClure should have waited. Lucky for Gordon he didn’t.

And lucky for Gordon that Childress is a little more patient.

“We complain to the owner about where we think our weaknesses are,” Gordon said. “Richard’s an owner that you can have honest conversations with, and he doesn’t take it personal. That’s why we’re going to get along well.”

They put on a happy face last weekend at Atlanta, when Childress officially announced Gordon as his driver and Cingular Wireless as his sponsor. How’d they celebrate? They failed to qualify for the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“We made a great announcement with Cingular Wireless,” Childress said. “Yeah, we missed the race, but that’s the same car we missed the race with at Charlotte. Robby’s going to buy it, then put it in our show-car division.”

Gordon spent last Sunday watching the race on TV and doing some other personal things, but that wasn’t the way he wanted to spend his weekend.

“It was embarrassing,” Gordon said. “It was real embarrassing to miss the race, but to come back and win the very next one, obviously (Atlanta) we’re not worried about. We’ll get over it.”

One could say they have already gotten over it. And one could also say Gordon has finally gotten over the criticism he’s received in his stock car racing career.

“What can you say about Robby Gordon?” Childress said. “A lot of people wondered, ‘Why Robby?’ (Friday) proved he’s not only good on a road course, but he has a tremendous amount of talent.”

The trouble, of course, is harnessing that talent.

“I’m just proud Richard believed in me,” Gordon said. “He point-blank asked me if I could win on an oval, and I told him we could win on an oval if we get the car where I could live with the balance. We showed a lot of people we can get to victory lane with a Winston Cup car.

“I’ve struggled in Winston Cup. A lot of people doubted and said, ‘He won’t win a Winston Cup race on an oval.’ I had to do a lot of talking to Richard to get him to take me and believe in me.”

But will others believe in Gordon?

“The doubters will keep doubting, and the supporters will keep supporting,” Gordon said. “Everybody has their own opinions. I’m just excited I finally did pull a Winston Cup into victory lane.”

If only Earnhardt were here to see it.

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