There's no hate for Gordon now -- just pity

Saturday, July 13, 2002

This is like struggling to recall when poor Barry Bonds hit his last home run. Like watching Tiger Woods slice his tee shot into a condo.

The words go together like water and WD-40:

Jeff Gordon, underdog.

It is becoming harder and harder to hate the most enthusiastically booed man in auto racing, perhaps in all of sports. Most NASCAR fans don't know it yet; old habits are stubborn as rented mules. So Gordon got the usual reaction in prerace introductions for the Pepsi 400 at Daytona last weekend -- loyalist cheers beat back by crazed derision.

The dispassionate stock car fan (if there were any) might consider Gordon's recent travails and maybe let up on the "I Hate 24" pedal.

Not suggesting a group hug or a telethon or anything, only a nod to evidence suggesting Mr. Perfect may bleed, after all.

He has gone 25 races without a Winston Cup victory, a career-worst drought stretching nine months.

He is going through a contentious divorce that some suspect is at play in the slump.

Though still only 30, Gordon suddenly has become a prince laid bare, his standing as NASCAR's best active driver in question, and his standing as its glamour boy usurped by the natural heir, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Junior has taken over as American motorsports' cover boy largely by inheritance or media decree, surely not on the wing of those six career Winston Cup victories compared to Gordon's 58.

But facts is facts, ma'am: Junior has won the coveted People magazine triple crown -- making the most-eligible-bachelor, sexiest-man and most-intriguing-people issues -- since Gordon last did the hat dance in Victory Lane.

To lend perspective to Jeff Gordon being winless at midseason, this would be like baseball going into its All-Star break with labor peace.

Unheard of, man!

Fellow drivers have different takes on the downsizing of Gordon, whose four Winston Cup season championships trail only the seven won by NASCAR's two-man Mount Rushmore -- "The King," Richard Petty, and "The Intimidator," Dale Earnhardt the First.

Current season points-leader Sterling Marlin, asked whether Gordon had become a sympathetic figure, grinned and said, "Nah. He's won enough!"

But veteran Bobby Labonte said, "It's good to have a dominant vehicle and driver. When he was dominant, the sport flourished more than it did when 19 different drivers were winning. When one man dominates, everybody either roots for him or boos him. That's good."

Now, 19 different drivers are winning again, though Gordon remains the lightning rod (old habits, you know) for fans.

Gordon believes the bottleneck will break and the wins will resume. He lurks fifth in season points, so you would doubt but not discount his being in the title mix when the NASCAR season ends Nov. 17 at Homestead.

As for the crowd reaction, he will take it.

The late Dale Earnhardt mentored Gordon on two points, neither involving going fast and turning left. He taught Gordon about the business end, and, "He'd tell me not to worry if fans are booing you as long as they're making noise," Gordon said. "When they stop is when I'll be concerned."

Detractors always have found Gordon to be too too. Too good, too handsome, too rich, too successful, too slick, too lucky -- too everything except too Southern. There, he was too little.

Now the slump and the divorce have de-supered the man.

Didn't the marriage always seem too perfect? They met at Daytona, he the superstar-designate, she the beauty queen, a "Miss Winston."

Brooke was the blond, Barbie Doll-type wife for seven years, until she filed for divorce this spring, claiming a marriage "irretrievably broken as a result of the husband's marital misconduct."

Now she is seeking just about everything from Gordon except the right to drive his No. 24 Chevrolet.

She wants the 23,095-square-foot, $9 million Palm Beach compound, the Porsche and the Mercedes. She wants use of the two yachts and the private jet. Oh, and alimony. She thinks she can somehow get by on $200,000 a month.

Gordon has countersued, claiming his ex-wife does not deserve half of their estate because he "risked his life" to earn it.

Meanwhile, the Pepsi 400 continued his lucklessness. He finished an unGordonly 22nd, needing drafting help to make up ground but finding none from rivals. "There was no mercy being shown," it is written on his Web site.

The problem began when a punctured tire forced an unscheduled pit stop from which he never recovered.

My question: Can the ex-Miss Winston and future ex-Mrs. Gordon, Brooke, account for her whereabouts at the time of that punctured tire?

Dan Cote is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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