Tuesday, April 15, 2003

The Kid vs. Junior: a dream NASCAR matchup

Florida Today

At this point in the NASCAR season, any of the drivers in the top seven in points could be considered a serious championship contender.

But the matchup that would demand the use of every adjective and superlative in the dictionary would be Jeff Gordon vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Judging by numbers alone, a title race between Gordon and Earnhardt would look to be a mismatch:

• In 11 seasons, Gordon has won four Winston Cup titles and 62 races.

• In this, his fourth full season, Earnhardt has a career-best eighth-place finish in points and eight victories.

But Winston Cup championships are awarded based on performances on the racetrack, not on paper. And on the asphalt, Earnhardt's youth, verve and pedigree are worth every bit as much as Gordon's experience.

"I think I'm aware of him being tough, no matter whether he's got the points lead or not," Gordon said of Earnhardt on Sunday at Martinsville. "They're definitely running good at a lot of different tracks. In the past, they've had some weaknesses."

And then Gordon touched on something that just might be the key to Earnhardt's performance this season, something that has been noticed by those close to the sport. "I think the team has matured, I think Junior has matured and they're showing that week in and week out."

Coming into the 2003 season, Gordon was the favorite of many observers to win his fifth title, while Earnhardt was mentioned as a contender for a top-10 finish.

But nine races into the 36-event season, Earnhardt sits second in points, his highest standing this deep into a campaign, and Gordon has rallied to third, 88 points behind Junior.

Whether Earnhardt can maintain the focus he has used to record six top-six finishes in his last seven races remains to be seen. But the days of Earnhardt being a two-race track wonder - Daytona and Talladega - are over.

"I feel like we can do this all year long," Earnhardt said of his third-place finish at Martinsville. "We've got to keep trying to keep working hard. We can't get really lackadaisical or too confident. We have to continue to have a lot of respect for our competition and where we stand up against them at some of these racetracks we're coming up to, like Pocono."

Gordon knows there are tracks where he will have an advantage and tracks where he won't. He knows there will be times of consistency and times of controversy. But in true veteran fashion, he is focusing on the big picture.

"We've got to hang with them at the places that they are really strong - Daytona and Talladega - and we've got to take advantage of some of the tracks that they're not as strong at," Gordon said. "I didn't know how strong he'd be today, so today was somewhat a surprise of how good he was. We never really focus on any one guy. We just focus on our own program.

"We've always done it that way and we know that if we do our job ... that is what is going to put us up there for the championship. If we don't do our job, that is what is going to prevent us from getting it."

And even if Gordon hits all his marks and his team handles its myriad duties flawlessly, there's still so much that is out of his control or the control of any bunch contending for the Winston Cup.

A lot of it can come down to pure dumb luck. And based on what we've seen so far this season, young Earnhardt has that angel on his shoulder.

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The Kid vs. Junior: a dream NASCAR matchup

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