Gordon Now A Tough Guy?

Jeff Gordon has always had his share of ardent fans. After all, he is a four-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion.

But after what he did to win last Saturday night’s Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, he may have just won over a few of his harshest detractors. You know, the fans that boo him so lustily every week.

Racing for his first victory in nearly a year, Gordon bumped Rusty Wallace from behind in the final two laps to pass Wallace and earn his fifth career triumph at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.” When he did that, a loud roar of approval came from a majority of the more than 130,000 screaming race fans at BMS who came to get that kind of entertainment for their hard-earned money.

Gordon just isn’t used to that. And he isn’t used to taking on the roll of “aggressive” driver, either. That was usually reserved for a man they called “The Intimidator.”

But doing what he had to do to win his first race since Sept. 30, 2001 – to get the proverbial “monkey off his back” – might just help change a lot of fans’ perspective of the driver who used to be referred to as “Wonderboy.”

“I don’t know,” Gordon said with a huge smile. “It would be unusual to know that they were cheering. Maybe it was just sympathy, I don’t know. I just think the fans here at Bristol love to see an exciting race.

“They love to see the bumping and banging and the fast-paced action. They’re fired up here; the lights are on. It’s electrifying, as much for the drivers as it is for the fans. I think that their wish is that it comes down to a Rusty/Jeff battle to the finish and some bumping and banging going on. They eat that stuff up. I think if I hadn’t done that they probably would have booed me.”

Wallace, who himself was attempting to break a 49-race winless skid, was more upset at Joe Nemechek for blocking him from passing to allow Gordon to catch up than he was at Gordon bumping him from behind to pass him.

“It was good, fun Bristol racing,” Wallace said. “I know he (Gordon) wanted to win the thing real bad because all the fans have been on him about not winning, but I tell you, it’s been about 40 or 50 races since I’ve won too, so I wanted it real bad myself.”

Saturday night wasn’t the first time Gordon and Wallace have bumped fenders. Gordon remembers another incident quite vividly, one that might have cost him a victory as well.

“Does anybody remind him (Wallace) of Richmond a couple of years ago?” Gordon said. “He didn’t hit the wall (Saturday night). I hit the wall hard (at Richmond).”

Another indication that Gordon’s on-track image appears to be changing came earlier in Saturday night’s 500-lap event. Gordon was racing with Kyle Petty, who wasn’t running up front, and was forced to go to the high side to pass Petty.

Earlier in the driver’s meeting, NASCAR officials stressed to the drivers that lapped cars should move to the high side of the track to let faster cars go by. Gordon didn’t think Petty complied with the request.

Later on, Petty tried to get a lap back from Gordon – more than once – and more than once Gordon wouldn’t allow it to happen. During an ensuing caution period, Petty came up and gave Gordon’s car a couple of taps to let him know his displeasure. Petty’s wife, Pattie, even crossed the infield to confront someone in Gordon’s pit, but was shooed away without incident.

“In the driver’s meeting, they asked everybody to go high, lapped cars to go high and lead lap cars to go low,” Gordon said. “It’s one thing if you just stay in you groove and stay in your line, but we came up to lap Kyle and all of a sudden he moved down to the bottom to force everybody to go to the outside, and I just thought that was uncalled for.

“It made it extremely difficult to pass him. I almost got passed because I had to pass him on the outside. I went to the inside one time and he ran me down low. That’s not like Kyle. I love Kyle and I love racing with him, but if a guy works with me I’m going to work with him. When it came time to give him his lap back I guess he was just expecting me to move over. I wasn’t going to do that. I don’t agree with the whole giving laps back anyway, but if a guy works with me I’m certainly going to work with him.

“After what happened, I said, ‘All right, if he cuts me a break on the re-start, I’ll help him get his lap back. And I tried to; it just didn’t work out.’ ”

The longest winless streak in Gordon’s Winston Cup career is now history. For a man who’s used to winning races (59 now in 9 ½ years), he doesn’t want to ever get THAT “hungry” for a victory again.

“You see yourself that close and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m not going to let this opportunity get away,’ ” Gordon said. “I don’t think there are two guys out there that are more hungry than me and Rusty right now. He hasn’t won in a while and I hadn’t won in a while. Both of us came in on a mission. I wanted to get to that victory lane bad, and we did. We achieved what we wanted to and got to victory lane. It might be a little controversial, but I don’t care. I’m just glad to have won.”

If Gordon wins like that a little more often, then maybe the fans won’t care, either.

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