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Gordon tries to steer around talk involving championship chase
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Jeff Gordon doesn't enjoy talking about the championship chase.
The three-time Winston Cup champion would much rather let the drama play out on the racetrack. Still, with only nine races to go and a 210-point lead over Ricky Rudd, the questions are inevitable.
"I know everybody wants to talk about it, but I'd rather not, if I had the choice," said Gordon, who will start on the outside of the front row today in the inaugural Protection One 400 at Kansas Speedway.
"Let's just get it on and go racing," Gordon said.
Gordon, whose last title came in 1998, knows the pitfalls ahead. One slip, one mistake and that big points lead can be history.
After finishing second to Ward Burton on Sept. 2 in the Southern 500, Gordon held a 342-point lead over Rudd and nearly everyone was ready to hand over the championship trophy to the Rainbow Warrior.
The next week, Rudd won in Richmond, Va., while Gordon got into an early-race wreck with Sterling Marlin and wound up 36th -- just 222 points in front.
Last Sunday in Dover, Del., Gordon qualified a disappointing 23rd and barely avoided disaster several times early in the race -- caving in a fender in a collision with Ricky Craven and narrowly missing a multi-car crash later in the day.
He also had a slow pit stop because of a dropped lugnut but somehow hung on and finished fourth -- just one spot behind Rudd. That shaved 15 more points off Gordon's lead.
"After Richmond, it was important for us to come back last week and get a top five, and we had to fight pretty hard for that one," Gordon said. "I was mad at myself for the way we qualified last week. I knew that was going to make our day long, and it did.
"After we left Dover, I knew we had to qualify well at Kansas. I'm not saying you can't get those top-fives from starting in the back, but it makes life tough."
While Gordon was relieved by his fourth-place finish in Dover, Rudd wasn't very happy with his third-place run.
He came out of the race furious at Rusty Wallace for possibly costing him a win. Moments after Rudd lapped the struggling Wallace 56 laps from the end, he was spun out by the former series champ.
Rudd and Wallace, who had a face-to-face confrontation in the garage area after the Dover race, were called to the NASCAR hauler here Thursday and told to settle down.
"We all know who is in charge," Rudd said, smiling.
Still, he remained upset with Wallace.
"That was just a cheap shot," Rudd said. "I don't know for sure we would have won the race, but we were leading and I think we had the best car at that point in the race."
Rudd, who will start eighth in Sunday's 43-car field, knows he needs to put the Dover situation behind him, keep his focus on the racetrack and continue applying pressure on Gordon.
"We're still in it, but he's in control," said Rudd, whose best championship finish was second in 1991, 195 points behind Dale Earnhardt. "We need to win some more races and, if Jeff has a few more days like Richmond, well, we'll see."
Jason Leffler will start from the pole, the third rookie to lead the field into a race this season. Leffler, a former short track star in the U.S. Auto Club, hopes for a better fate than befell Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.
Newman won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 in May, but crashed on the 11th lap and finished 43rd. Busch was the pole-winner four weeks ago for the Southern 500 and led 74 laps before he hit the wall and finished 39th.
"It's a good accomplishment ... but it would be a lot greater if I could finish in the first spot on Sunday," said Leffler, whose best finish in 22 career starts is 13th.