News & Media

Retro Racing: Reconfigured Atlanta weighed on Gordon in '97

November 11, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Managed 17th-place finish in season finale to hold off Jarrett, Martin for title

As a whole, race car drivers find that familiarity breeds content. It's the fear of the unknown that leaves them filled with contempt.

Once they get used to a track's shape and feel -- race after race and year after year -- any change, however small, requires readjustment. Add in championship implications, and the whole process becomes magnified.

Jeff Gordon finished three laps down, but one spot better than he needed to. (Getty Images)


1997 NAPA 500 Results
2.Dale JarrettFord
3.Mark MartinFord
4.Jeff Green Chevrolet
5.Derrike CopeFord
17.Jeff GordonChevrolet
2. Dale Jarrett -14
3.Mark Martin -29
4. Jeff Burton -425
5. Dale Earnhardt -494

Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart face that situation this weekend at the newly reconfigured and repaved Phoenix International Raceway, just like Jeff Gordon did at Atlanta in the 1997 NAPA 500.

In Gordon's case, everything that could go wrong seemingly did that final weekend of the season. And yet he did persevere, doing just enough to hold off Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin to claim his second Cup championship.

From the time it was built in 1960, Atlanta had been a true 1.5-mile oval, with two long straights connected by tight, high-banked corners. However, when Bruton Smith purchased the facility in 1990, he ultimately envisioned a track similar to Charlotte's quad-shaped oval, allowing for increased seating and luxury suites.

After Bobby Labonte won the 1997 spring race, track construction began in earnest. The layout was swapped, with the original backstretch becoming the pit road for the new frontstretch, along with grandstands and suites. With all the changes, the track distance was increased to 1.54 miles.

And with a fresh coat of asphalt, the new Atlanta was expected to be lightning fast. And was it ever, with race speeds as much as 10 mph quicker on the reconfigured oval. In fact, Geoffrey Bodine admitted he "held his breath and went for it" on a pole-winning lap of more than 197 mph -- the fastest qualifying lap turned in the series in seven years.

All of the changes were partially weighing on Gordon's mind when he arrived at the track the Friday before the race. Even though Jarrett had won at Phoenix to narrow the points gap, Gordon -- who had won 10 times that season in addition to a $1 million bonus -- still led him by 77 points and Martin by 87. However, Gordon had let a 111-point lead slip away with four races remaining in 1996, so he admitted he felt some pressure.

"If we don't win this thing, no one will be more disappointed than us," Gordon had said. "I've been around the team all week, and I've never seen them as ready. The race car is prepared. That's all we can do."

Jarrett and Martin agreed that something unprecedented would have to happen for them to leapfrog the points leader. But Gordon understood the championship was his to win -- or lose.

"We can't make any silly mistakes," Gordon said. "If it comes down to the last couple of laps and I've got a shot at winning and I've got to do something risky to do it, I might settle for second or third."

For Gordon, the first silly mistake came well before he was even in a position to worry about settling for a top-three finish. He had problems right from the weekend's first morning practice, held under cold and cloudy conditions.

Gordon came out of the garage area after making a number of adjustments, then attempted to build some heat into his cold tires by jerking the steering wheel back and forth. Unfortunately, he spun sideways on pit road and slammed into the stopped car of Bobby Hamilton.

Both drivers were forced to pull out their backup cars and Gordon got just eight more laps in before the session ended.

"Shouldn't have happened," Gordon said. "I blame myself. But this team did an awesome job getting the other car out there."

And things snowballed from there. The team hurriedly switched motors from the primary to the backup -- and when Gordon went out to qualify, he bobbled in Turns 1 and 2, having to lift out of the throttle to get his car under control.

He ended up 37th on the grid, well behind third-place Jarrett and Martin, who rolled off ninth. Suddenly the championship wasn't nearly as secure as it seemed.

"There was something, maybe oil, on the race track [on the qualifying lap], and I think it might have come from our car," Gordon said. "That's what happens when you get rushed like this.

"We have a car capable of qualifying pretty darn good. It's unfortunate we didn't get to show it today. That's what happens when you make mistakes."

Still, Gordon knew he only had to finish 18th or better in Sunday's race to wrap up the title. While Jarrett and Marlin battled with Labonte at the front of the field, Gordon moved up to 25th before a Lap 25 competition caution. He gained another five spots by Lap 40 and was in 18th place -- the clinching spot -- by Lap 61.

However, Gordon's handling progressively got worse as the day wore on. Labonte lapped him on Lap 133. He lost another lap to the leaders when he pitted early for new tires. And Labonte caught him again with the race winding down -- but by then, Gordon was in 17th and knew all he had to do was maintain his position to put an end to a nerve-wracking day.

"Up until the last 100 laps, the car was comfortable and everything was going good," Gordon said. "Then the track seemed to change on us and we got really loose and abused the tires. ... I tried to conserve the tires, but the last couple of laps I was really worried. I didn't do any spinouts to celebrate because I was afraid there wasn't any rubber left on the tires.

"I had the biggest sigh of relief ever when the race ended. We didn't want to cut it as close as we did."

It was somewhat reminiscent of Gordon's first title in 1995 -- when he struggled to finish 32nd at Atlanta and edged Dale Earnhardt by 34 points. Gordon's 1997 championship margin was 14 points over Jarrett and 29 over Martin, the closest three-way finish in NASCAR history.

Will the unknown that a reconfigured Phoenix represents play as much of a factor in this season's championship? We'll have to wait until Sunday to know for sure, but it's certain to be on the minds of Edwards and Stewart, much like it was for Gordon 14 seasons ago.