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Gordon, Jarrett Can’t Overcome The Iceman

November 11, 1996

HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) _ Jeff Gordon’s reign as Winston Cup champion lasted exactly a year. Now, he’ll have the winter to think about what went wrong.

For the first time in his remarkable career, the Kid actually took a small step back. Not a big one, mind you, but enough to cost him the title he won a year ago at age 24.

Gordon officially gave up his championship Sunday when teammate Terry Labonte finished fifth in the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Actually, though, Gordon’s downfall came the previous three races.

After a six-week stretch in which he looked almost unbeatable (four victories and two seconds), Gordon squandered a huge points lead with a 31st place finish at Charlotte, a 12th at Rockingham and a fifth at Phoenix.

By the time he got to Atlanta, Gordon needed a collapse from The Iceman. Labonte, though, drove his usual workmanlike race and claimed the championship even though he won only two races to Gordon’s 10.

Gordon, driving brilliantly to recover from an early two-lap deficit, wound up third in the race and second in the season standings, a mere 37 points behind Labonte.

``We did a great job,″ said Gordon, still smiling despite the end of his championship reign. ``You can’t look back at the things that kept us from being the champion this year.

``I’m happy.″

Dale Jarrett had no complaints, either. The only other driver with a chance to win the title coming into the final race, he came on strong late in the race to finish second behind Bobby Labonte, Terry’s younger brother.

``With a few more laps, I think I might have gotten him,″ said Jarrett, who finished 89 points behind Terry Labonte in the best season of his career. ``I feel real good about next year. I told people we just needed to continue to get better, and I think we did as the year went on. That’s only going to continue next year.″

Jarrett, assigned to a new second team with Robert Yates Racing after Ernie Irvan recovered from life-threatening injuries, was at his best in the big races. Among Jarrett’s four victories were the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

``We had a good race team. Everything worked together,″ he said. ``There’s a lot we learned this year, a lot of experience racing for a championship and racing up front and trying to win races. I think we’ve got a lot of momentum going into next year.″

Jarrett entered the final race knowing that his chances of capturing the season title were remote at best. He needed to win the race, lead the most laps and have Labonte finish no higher than 29th and Gordon 14th or worse, without either of them leading a lap.

``Those other two guys were just too good,″ Jarrett said. ``They just wouldn’t break, and we didn’t expect them to. When you get in this situation, you know they are going to have their best stuff. They did a great job.″

Actually, Gordon’s team might have made a huge mistake before the green flag ever dropped. Just 10 laps into the race, his multicolored Chevrolet Monte Carlo sank to the bottom of the track and began to slow, the left rear tire vibrating badly.

Gordon dipped into the pits two laps later, and wound up spending more than 40 seconds there while his crew fixed the problem and made sure the car was safe. Goodyear engineers said the lugnuts were inexplicably loose.

``One of the things on our pre-race check is to check all four wheels,″ said a befuddled crew chief, Ray Evernham. ``They were checked and signed off on our sheet, so we don’t know what happened there.″

Gordon came out of the pits two laps down and was a sight to behold as he stormed past one car after another. He wound up leading 59 laps in the race, second only to the winner, but never got back to the top after a caution period late in the race shuffled the order.

Still, Gordon had his best finish ever in the fall race at Atlanta and, in a way, felt a little better than he did clinching the 1995 championship with a dismal 32nd-place finish.

``Last year, we left this place very discouraged and won the championship,″ he said. ``This year, we didn’t win the championship, but I’m real proud of how well we ran.″

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