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Jarrett Slips; Gordon Wins Southern 500

September 1, 1996

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon had the same plan. Jarrett succeeded and lost. Gordon failed and won.

Welcome to Darlington International Raceway, where each knows that running up front is the best way to avoid disaster.

``I was just cruising around,″ Jarrett said. ``I was right where I wanted to be.″

But he slipped on a few cents worth of oil, ending his pursuit of a million dollar bonus, and became just a spectator Sunday as Jeff Gordon added his name to a short list of those who have the humbled ``The Lady in Black.″

With a commanding lead on the 46th of 367 laps on the treacherous track, Jarrett’s Ford suddenly slipped up the high banking and scraped the wall between turns three and four. That took him out of contention in the Southern 500 and left the Winston Select Million unclaimed for the 11th straight year.

``Unfortunately, being out there made me the first guy to go through the oil,″ Jarrett said. ``I was upset because I knew we had the car to win the race.″

But he didn’t, and Gordon’s successful defense of his Southern 500 title made him only the second driver to win three consecutive times at Darlington.

``If ever there was a time to be running sixth or seventh, that was the time,″ said Gordon, who had dropped back from the leaders after a poor pit stop. ``All the leaders hit the wall.″

It was an omen.

``I was thinking to myself right there, if this is a sign of anything, it could be our day,″ Gordon said.

It was. But it didn’t do much for his audience.

The 25-year-old Hoosier’s victory proved generally disappointing to a crowd of 60,000. Many came to this old country track see a kid from down the road in Camden _ one of their own _ win the oldest race and make a lot of money.

But Jarrett finished 14th, two laps down, while trying to become just the second driver to collect the Winston Select Million, a bonus payoff from the series sponsor for victories in three of four major NASCAR races in the same year.

Instead, Gordon, the reigning Winston Cup champion, mastered this mishapen monstrosity whose angles were determined by an adjacent pond. His series-leading seventh victory of the season made him the sixth driver to repeat in the traditional Labor Day Weekend race.

Gordon emerged from a magnificent late-race battle to beat Hut Stricklin by 5.23 seconds for the 16th victory of his career and only the second by a Chevrolet in the last eight races. He collected $99,630 from a purse of $1.4 million.

He moved within 24 points of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte in the series standings. Overheating problems relegated Labonte to 26th.

Jarrett is 91 points back. A battered Dale Earnhardt, seeking an unprecedented eighth title, trails by 161 points after 23 of 31 races.

Gordon averaged 135.757 mph in a race slowed six times by 37 laps of caution as the egg-shaped oval _ the consensus choice as the most difficult track on the circuit _ bit the field as usual.

The oil slick that took Jarrett from the lead also resulted in spins by the other contenders at the time. None was a factor thereafter.

One by one, the rest fell by the wayside on a hot and humid afternoon. By the 250th trip around the 1.366-mile layout, the race came down to Stricklin, a non-winner, and Gordon.

Stricklin’s Ford took the lead with 52 laps left, but Gordon hounded him relentlessly. Finally, after several near passes on the tight oval where lapped traffic often can be as difficult as the track itself, Gordon got beneath Stricklin at the end of the backstretch with 15 laps remaining.

Gordon barely held the lead through the tricky third turn, then was unimpeded the rest of the way.

``Hut had a great car,″ Gordon said. ``He raced me real hard and real clean.″

Stricklin, whose best career finish was second in a race five years ago, was happy to finish that high again because his car was starting to fail late in the race.

``Once Jeff got to me, I couldn’t hold him off,″ Stricklin said. ``But I couldn’t ask for a bettter deal.″

Earnhardt, winless since March and still on the mend from a horrifying crash five weeks ago, was 12th. A victory would have been his 10th at Darlington. Only retired great David Pearson won that often on the track ``too tough to tame.″

Only Earnhardt had won three consecuitive races at Darlington. Gordon will try to make history next March when he goes for a fourth in the TranSouth 400.

Jarrett had won the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 to position himself for his million dollar chase in the final NASCAR major of the year. Bill Elliott is the only driver to have won the bonus, doing so in 1985, its inaugural year.

Only Gordon _ who also won the Talladega race that left Earnhardt recovering from multiple fractures _ has broken the recent Ford dominance. The victory was the 12th this year for a Chevrolet. Ford has 11.

There were 29 lead changes among 14 drivers in the race sponsored by Mountain Dew. Gordon led seven tmes for 52 laps, Stricklin three times for 143.

Mark Martin was third in a Ford, the only other car on the lead lap.

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