Gordon takes turn at Million Auto racing: With a victory in tomorrow's Southern 500, Jeff Gordon would capture Winston Cup's $1 million bonus, achieved only once before, by Bill Elliott.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jeff Gordon is so hoarse he sounds like a defective CD, as his voice cracks and skips. He has done so many interviews, talked about the possibility of winning the Winston Million bonus so much he can't imagine anyone wanting him to say more.

But outside his team's truck, his public relations people are carrying clipboards filled with a seemingly endless list of interviews still promised.

"The way I feel, the good thing about it is that my daily activities can't get any more busy than they've been, and I feel like that's a plus," says Gordon, who has seen the stress other drivers have gone through while going for the million. "On a usual day for me at the racetrack, I block out an hour for lunch, an hour for dinner and an hour for Bible study in the evening."

Every other minute is spent either inside his race car, talking into reporters' tape recorders or microphones or doing appearances for his sponsor. His voice is almost always close to cracking up.

"I can do an endless number of things," he says. "But I've got to have some peace, some sleep and keep my voice."

But this is Gordon's big weekend, and if it's possible to squeeze in one more interview, this is the weekend he'll do it. This is the weekend he goes for the Winston Million at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

"It's so hard just to win one race," Gordon says, talking about the mystique the bonus has taken on. "In this case, you have to win three of four specific races. It's awful hard. You've seen how hard; only Bill Elliott has done it."

To win the Million, a driver must win three of the four "Crown Jewel" races on the Winston Cup circuit: the most prestigious, the Daytona 500; the fastest, the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala.; the longest, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C.; and the oldest, the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington.

The Winston Million is comparable to horse racing's Triple Crown, but it might be even more difficult. Before the $1 Million bonus made winning three of the big four a big payday, only LeeRoy Yarbrough in 1969 and David Pearson in 1976 had managed to do it in a single season.

Since 1985, when Elliott did it in the Million's first year -- and he made it look easy in a season in which he won 11 of the circuit's 28 races -- no one else has.

Five drivers have been in position to match the feat. But Darrell Waltrip (1989), Dale Earnhardt (1990), Harry Gant (1991), the late Davey Allison (1992) and Dale Jarrett (1996) all left Darlington disappointed.

Now, Gordon has his chance.

"Darlington is a difficult track," says Gordon, who qualified seventh yesterday at 169.766 mph. "It's hard setting up the race car. It's an egg-shaped oval with two totally separate corners. It's tough to get the car just right at both ends of the track. But it seems like Darlington has been good for me in the past."

Last season, when Jarrett was going for the bonus, it was Gordon who won this race. Gordon also won it in 1995. In fact, Gordon has won the past three times the Winston Cup series has raced on the 1.366-mile speedway.

"It does give me a little extra confidence going in," he says. "The way we've performed here is amazing."

A key to Gordon's success has been his working relationship with crew chief Ray Evernham.

"We've grown up in this sport together," Gordon says of Evernham. "Ray understands what I'm talking about. We're great friends, have great respect for each other and it's a combination that's getting better all the time."

In the last three years, the two have combined for 26 victories.

Evernham, who says Gordon is his first and last driver, has a firm grip going into tomorrow's race.

"We're not going to let this million make us do something we don't normally do," Evernham says. "We can't work any harder. All we can do is go race and try to go the distance, just like we always do."

But Evernham is aware how much Gordon wants this race, and nothing he says will stifle his driver's enthusiasm.

"I want to win it -- and not because of the money," says Gordon, who trails Mark Martin by 13 points in the driver standings. "A million, that's a lot of money, though I'm not going to get the whole million. More like $500,000, because the car owner gets half. And, well, probably not even $500,000. More like $270,000, because the IRS is going to get another 40 percent. Still, for one race, it's a huge amount, but it's more than the prize.

"I want to win it because it isn't easy to do, because only Bill Elliott has done it, because it has so much prestige that goes with it. That's why I want to win it. I'd want it for all those reasons even if it didn't pay a cent."

Pub Date: 8/30/97

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