Gordon attempts to protect lead at Southern 500

Sunday, September 2, 2001

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Can Jeff Gordon be as aggressive as he wants at the Southern 500 and still hold his overwhelming Winston Cup points lead?

"We'll see," Gordon's crew chief Robbie Loomis said with a smile.

Gordon has made himself a Darlington dominator since joining the NASCAR circuit, winning five events in 17 trips here. But one error -- like the engine problems in March that led to Gordon's first Darlington DNF -- in Sunday's Southern 500 could let talented racers such as Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin and Tony Stewart back in the championship hunt.

"I think that right now there is no points lead big enough," said Gordon, who'll start second next to Winston Cup rookie Kurt Busch. "I think anything can happen in any one of these races and that would dwindle away real fast. We know it's not over."

Gordon, with 3,528 points, leads Rudd (3,220) by 308 points.

Only David Pearson (10 victories) and Dale Earnhardt Sr. (nine) did better at Darlington than the 30-year-old Gordon.

"To me, it's a fun racetrack. It reminds me of some tracks that I raced at when I was younger, where you have to run right up against the wall," Gordon said. "You can get real aggressive here."

Too aggressive, though, is no good, especially if you want to cruise to your fourth Winston Cup title.

"The only thing that is going to change the points race is if Jeff gets some misfortune," said Rudd, second in the standings. "We're not going to get it by running him down. That's not going to happen."

A long road ahead

Gordon says with 12 races left, it's too soon to ease up.

"Our approach is to do what got us to that position and that's to win races," said Gordon, who has five Winston Cup victories this season. "If you can't win, you try and get a top-five, if you can't get a top five, you try and get a top-10."

The biggest thing, Gordon said, is to avoid what happened to him at Darlington's spring race, the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. He was in contention much of the race, but fell out with engine problems and finished 40th -- his poorest Darlington finish.

"Don't make dumb mistakes that are going to put us in a DNF position," Gordon said. "This year, the way we've been running, we're usually up front."

Gordon is one of nine racers with a season sweep at Darlington, having won twice here in 1996. Gordon's four straight Southern 500s from 1995-98 is unprecedented.

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