Dupont Team Back To Normal

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Certainly this is the Jeff Gordon that everyone has come to know and love – and hate – and fear.

With his victory Sunday in the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Gordon’s 31-race winless streak, which he broke two weekends ago in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, is a feint memory. So is talk of the demise of Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Refinishes Chevy team.

Even though he’s still second in the Winston Cup standings – 91 points behind leader Sterling Marlin – many believe that Gordon, now that he’s found his groove, is the overwhelming favorite to win his fifth Winston Cup championship.

“He (Gordon) is always the man to beat, past history tells you that,” said Bill Elliott, who’s seventh in the standings, 265 points behind Marlin. “Jeff is coming up on a good stretch and that team is really strong. If they don’t have any bad luck, they’ll be hard to beat.”

“I’d like to congratulate Jeff (for winning Sunday),” said Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Winston Cup champion. “I knew once they won one, they’d be hard to beat.”

So does Gordon consider himself the man to beat?

“We’ve done everything to be a threat for the championship except perform real well in certain places and take advantage of the tracks that we had run real well at,” Gordon said. “We just hadn’t gotten the wins. When we were here (Darlington) last time, we had a Top 5 car. We got caught up in a wreck. All these places where we probably shoulda-coulda had wins, we didn’t.

“For whatever reason, the last two weeks it’s happened for us. When you look at what it takes to win a championship – finishing races, finishing on the lead lap, and being consistent – we’ve been all of those things. This (Sunday’s victory) to me legitimizes our threat for the championship and legitimizes us in the garage area with the other competitors. That doesn’t mean they’re just going to stand down.”

Prior to Bristol, it had been since Sept. 30, 2001, at Kansas Speedway, since Gordon had graced victory lane. He had only two second-place finishes this season prior to Bristol (at Bristol in March and Chicago in July), and most races, he didn’t even appear to be a legitimate threat to win.

That begged the question if Gordon’s team had lost its competitive edge, and the fear that he and the DuPont team put in his competitor’s eyes every time he hit the racetrack in the past.

Gordon’s crew chief, Robbie Loomis, said Gordon was the steadying influence for the team throughout the bad times this season.

“We all know what a winner he (Gordon) he is and he’s the one all along who kept us calm,” Loomis said. “A lot of drivers asked me what the difference is between Jeff Gordon and other drivers. Having won four championships; Jeff has confidence that runs way deep.

“Myself, and a lot of guys on the team, don’t have that confidence that runs that deep. But Jeff tells us everything is going to be OK and to believe in one another and keep working together. He’s under total control when he keeps us calm and that helps us to think about the things we need to do. When he panics, I’m upside down myself.”

Since the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May, Gordon hasn’t fallen below fifth in the Winston Cup standings. His saving grace is the fact that no one else, including Marlin, has been consistently solid, either.

Marlin, who finished fourth Sunday, has three consecutive Top 7 finishes, but prior to that, he had two straight finishes of 27th or worse.

One advantage that Gordon has over Marlin down the stretch – and it’s a huge one – is that Gordon has won four championships. Marlin hasn’t really ever been in a championship chase before.

“We have a team of people that have been there and seen a lot,” Gordon said. “I have, too. It makes a difference. But Sterling has a strong team right now. That’s why they’ve been leading the points (since the second race of the season). We’re certainly going to try to make them think about some of their choices and decisions right now.

“We need to put pressure on those guys. We haven’t been putting any pressure on them. Nobody has. We’d certainly like to do it and I hope we can keep some things going our way and put some pressure on them. They’re going to be in it all the way to the end. I don’t see them buckling under the press or anything like that because they haven’t won a championship. Right now, our chemistry is extremely good. In that sense, maybe we have a little bit of an advantage over them right now.”

Another edge Gordon’s team has is momentum. This week the Winston Cup Series visits Richmond International Raceway – a place where Gordon has won twice in his career. Then it’s on to New Hampshire (three career victories), Dover (four) and Kansas, where he’s the defending champion.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Gordon said. “We’re still the same team we were two or three weeks ago, but now we’ve got a little more confidence, momentum and fire in our eye.”

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