If you cover a sport long enough, you'll end up in a strange time warp moment. It's a constant trip through a wormhole where every current moment ends up instantly reminding you of another that's been living in the back of your gray matter.
Which is a long, flowery way of saying you like to start your sentences with, "I remember when…"
Well, here goes.
Seeing Jeff Burton win at the Lowe's Motor Speedway two weekends back to launch himself into the thick of the 2008 NACSCAR Chase for the Cup took me back to a decade ago, to the summers of 1998 & '99. I remember when the sport was ruled by the Jeff and Jeff Show, as in Burton and Gordon.
"Maybe it's because we've both been around so long now, but people forget some of the great battles we had that year," Gordon said with a laugh and a scratch to his graying sideburns. "He almost cost me a million bucks one day at Darlington, I remember that!"
Between 1998 and 2000, Gordon and Burton ranked 1-2 in wins and were two of only three drivers to finish in the top five in points every year between '97 and '00 (Dale Jarrett was the other). Gordon grabbed the glory and the championships, while Burton eased into the role of Phil Mickelson to Gordon's Tiger Woods. When Wonder Boy needed a rival, Baby Burton was there to do the job.
Gordon, the '93 Rookie of the Year, was the youngest guy in the garage, with no kids and married to a former Miss Winston. Burton, the '94 R.O.Y., was only four years older but already had a baby girl and was married to his high school sweetheart. Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team was led by crew chief Ray Evernham, Mr. Futuristic Innovation, while Burton's Roush Racing Ford squad was put together by Buddy Parrott, one of the last real links to NASCAR's wild-ass days of the 1960's and '70s.
For two amazing weeks in the summer of 1998, the Jeff & Jeff Show electrified the Cup garage and managed to boost the sport's popularity, even during the uphill climb of trying to compete with the start of football season.
Round One took place in the Southern 500 at Darlington. Gordon had already won nine races and was on his way to matching Richard Petty's unreachable mark of 13 wins in a season. He tied another record by winning four in a row during the summer and could have very easily won six in a row but for a defeat at the hands of Burton at New Hampshire. A Labor Day win at the Track Too Tough To Tame would hand Gordon the coveted Winston Million dollar bonus, becoming just the second man to get it.
With two laps to go, Gordon led, but Burton's number 99 was only a few feet off his back bumper. As they came to the white flag, Burton got the nose of his T-Bird alongside Gordon's left rear quarter panel. Gordon eased down to block and the two cars made such hard contact that both cars shook violently and smoke came off their rubbing tires.
"I was in third," recalled Jarrett. "I eased out of the gas and gave them some room. I just knew they were going to wreck and I was going to win the Southern 500. Jeff Burton had two or three chances to wreck that 24 car and no one would have blamed him if he had. But he didn't and Gordon won the race. All you need to know about Jeff Burton was how he handled himself that day."
Six days later the Jeffs were at it again, this time under the lights at Richmond and this time it was Gordon who was running second. Lap after lap the two cars ran side by side and lap after lap Gordon had the opportunity to give Burton the bump-and-run and take the lead. Instead, he held his ground while Burton held his and the end result was a spine-tingling door-to-door finish with Burton winning by .051 seconds.
"You race other people how they race you," Gordon said as Burton celebrated in Victory Lane. "He could have turned me last week and I could have turned him tonight. I don't think anyone can argue with the end result either time, do you?"
The following season Gordon failed to defend his '98 Cup title, finishing sixth in points behind champ Jarrett and fifth place Burton. But he once again led the league in victories with seven, followed by Burton with six.
Now, a decade later, two of the original Young Guns are now the garage's elder statesmen. Burton is the oldest driver in the twelve-man Chase, Gordon is second oldest. Once again, Burton will likely be denied his elusive championship by a Gordon-affiliated team (he's co-owner of Jimmie Johnson's #48 Chevy), but the two graying warriors are still battling for points and wins. And, quietly, they are rooting for one another.
Just last week Burton scolded a bunch of reporters at Martinsville for suggesting that Gordon doesn't want to win races like he used to because he too is now a father and a family man. Gordon returned the favor by making a half-joking request that people stop referring to his rival as "the old man of the Chase".
"We're not old, we're experienced," Burton said with a point in the direction of a writer who first came to the garage around the same time they did. "Besides, if we're old then that means you are too."
Good point. Excuse me while I try to climb back into that wormhole.