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Gordon in fast lane to Winston Cup success Rookie is seventh in points standings


LONG POND, Pa. -- The tests have been telling. Some of them have been passed easily. Some not.

But Jeff Gordon, the Winston Cup driver who is producing one of the best rookie seasons on record, says none of the tests have been unexpected.

"I knew I had to earn these guys' respect," said Gordon, 21. "I knew they weren't just going to respect me based on my past record in other racing series.

DTC "I know racing is racing and that I've been in all the situations they could possibly put me in, but they had to see for themselves that I could take the heat."

So Dale Earnhardt has put his front bumper on Gordon's rear bumper at 180 mph, just to see his reaction.

Rusty Wallace has rubbed sheet metal, just to see how controlled Gordon would be.

Kyle Petty has refused to allow him an easy-on-track pass, just to see what the kid would do.

"They push you, shove you, crowd you," said Gordon. "They don't give you anything."

And how do you show you've passed their test?

"You don't wreck," he said.

Going into today's Miller Genuine Draft 500 at Pocono InternationalRaceway, Gordon is seventh in the Winston Cup points standings.

He is also just 56 points out of fourth and 371 behind leader Earnhardt.

"Rick Hendrick has given Jeff good equipment and the personnel on that team has meshed," said Richard Childress, who owns the Earnhardt car. "But there are other teams with good equipment and good personnel, so you have to give Jeff some of the credit. He has proven he is a fast learner and talented."

He has adapted so well that Petty noted yesterday, "Jeff still has anoutside chance" at the championship. But then, so does Petty, Morgan Shepherd, Wallace and Dale Jarrett.

"We haven't ordered any tuxedos for the championship dinner," said Childress, whose team has a 171-point lead over second-place Jarrett. "A lot of things can still happen."

Gordon has yet to win a race, but he is in the midst of producing the best rookie season since the late Davey Allison's spectacular run in 1987.

That year, Allison won twice, had nine top-5 and 10 top-10 finishes to earn $361,060.

In 17 races this season, Gordon has five top-5 finishes and eight top-10 runs, including a second, fifth and seventh in his past three races, and has already earned $413,115.

"I want to have a better season than Davey did his rookie year," said Gordon. "But if I don't compare, it doesn't matter. I'm in it for the long run. The goal is to eventually win the championship. Davey never got the title. He never got the chance to peak and reach his full potential."

Gordon holds a 60-point advantage over Kenny Wallace and Bobby Labonte in the Rookie of the Year competition and has far outdistanced them in the regular Winston Cup standings. Wallace is 25th, Labonte, 27th.

In a way, Gordon said, he is relieved he hasn't won a race yet.

When he finished fifth in his first Winston Cup race, the Daytona 500 last February, the pressure to continue at such a pace was felt immediately.

He is driving for Hendrick. He has a major sponsorship deal worth at least $3 million. He readily admits he has everything necessary to be a winner.

"But if we would have won, it would almost seem too easy," said Gordon, who will start his DuPont/Valvoline Chevrolet in the 10th row today.

"It would be almost too much, too soon," he said. "We don't want it easy. Experience wins races and we'll be in the position to win when we get a little more experience."

In June, Gordon didn't learn a lot here, suffering one of his rare

crashes after running just 10 laps.

1. Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Lumina, 162.934, track qualifying record; previous record, 162.816, Schrader, Chevrolet, June 11, 1993. 2. Bill Elliott, Ford Thunderbird, 162.637. 3. Ricky Rudd, Chevrolet Lumina, 162.317. 4. Ernie Irvan, Chevrolet Lumina, 162.262. 5. Mark Martin, Ford Thunderbird, 162.241. 6. Jimmy Hensley, Ford Thunderbird, 162.110. 7. Bobby Labonte, Ford Thunderbird, 161.830. 8. Morgan Shepherd, Ford Thunderbird, 161.201. 9. Derrike Cope, Ford Thunderbird, 161.094. 10. Brett Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 161.054.

11. Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet Lumina, 160.993. 12. Hut Stricklin, Ford Thunderbird, 160.921. 13. Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 160.855. 14. Bobby Hillin, Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 160.815. 15. Sterling Marlin, Ford Thunderbird, 160.683. 16. Michael Waltrip, Pontiac Grand Prix, 160.654. 17. Ted Musgrave, Ford Thunderbird, 160.488. 18. Rusty Wallace, Pontiac Grand Prix, 160.485. 19. Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix, 160.468. 20. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet Lumina, 160.402.

21. Harry Gant, Chevrolet Lumina, 160.299. 22. Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 160.151. 23. Dale Jarrett, Chevrolet Lumina, 160.122. 24. Jimmy Spencer, Ford Thunderbird, 160.023. Rick Wilson, Pontiac Grand Prix, 159.841. 26. Greg Sacks, Ford Thunderbird, 159.535. 27. Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Lumina, 28. Phil Parsons, Chevrolet Lumina, 159.433. 29. Rick Mast, Ford Thunderbird, 159.326. 30. Kenny Wallace, Pontiac Grand Prix, 159.157.

31. Dick Trickle, Ford Thunderbird, 158.952. 32. Terry Labonte, Chevrolet Lumina, 158.848. 33. T.W. Taylor, Ford Thunderbird, 158.242. 34. Bobby Hamilton, Ford Thunderbird, 157.767. 35. Jimmy Horton, Chevrolet Lumina, 157.508. 36. Dave Marcis, Chevrolet Lumina, 156.885. 37. Ken Bouchard, Ford Thunderbird, 38. Kerry Teague, Chevrolet Lumina, 156.123. 39. Clay Young, Ford Thunderbird, 155.887. 40. John Krebs, Chevrolet Lumina, 155.537.

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