Friendly rivalry

Sunday, August 22, 2004

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Jeff Gordon is Jimmie Johnson's teammate, mentor, friend and the co-owner of his car -- and he's also one of the guys trying to beat out Johnson for the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.

Gordon has been through this before, racing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte heads-up for the 1996 title, and losing by a mere 37 points.

"I wasn't as close to Terry as I am to Jimmie," Gordon said. "We had just come off a championship the year before and there was definitely some heavy rivalry going on within the organization. It got very intense."

The drive to win is still there for four-time series champion Gordon -- who is three away from Dale Earnhardt's mark of seven titles -- but this championship battle is different.

"I want one of us to win that championship," Gordon said. "If I can't win it, I certainly want him to win it."

Johnson feels the same way.

"We each want the championship for our own reasons," Johnson said. "Jeff wants to chase Earnhardt's mark of seven, and I want my first one.

"There's a lot of competition there, but the most important thing is that we respect each other through all the competition. And, regardless of how it turns out, we're still going to be teammates at the end of it. We're still going to be friends."

Going into today's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Gordon trails Johnson by just 40 points at the top of the standings. But both drivers need to regain momentum with only four events remaining until the new 10-race "Chase for the Cup" showdown begins.

For the first time, only the top 10 drivers after the 26th race of the season -- Sept. 11 in Richmond, Va. -- will be eligible to race for the title over the final 10 events.

Following the Richmond race, NASCAR will adjust the points with the leader only five points ahead of the runner-up and the top 10 drivers separated by only 45 points.

That means the teams performing the best going into the last 10 races will have the edge in the title battle.

"It's important for both of us to be on track right now," Gordon said. "We need to do all we can to maintain the momentum we've had to this point in the season."

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