"There are some things more important than racing, but my focus will be working with Brian and Rick Hendrick and this team to get them everything they need to win and get me everything I need to win," Gordon says. 1999 Final Standing: 6th Place
Dale EarnhardtAfter winning three races in 1999 -his first multiwin season since 1996-it was easy to conclude that Dale Earnhardt was back. But in the words of the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, "I never went anywhere. I have always been here. I'll be here until I'm gone.
"Right now, the plan is to sign a new three-year deal with Richard and Goodwrench and be here until 2003 and probably look at retirement after that. I'm not going to make any bones about it or set a time deal on it. I'm sure at age 50-whatever, it will be time to go to the racetrack and watch Dale Jr. and Steve Park and those guys race and win and hopefully be a championship owner."
Look for Earnhardt to continue his upward trend in 2000, giving the sport a significant link to its illustrious past. 1999 Final Standing: 7th Place
Ricky RuddOpportunity comes along at the strangest times. Just ask Ricky Rudd, who in just a few short months lost his major sponsor, Tide, and was faced with the decision of whether or not to close his racing team. When team owner Robert Yates decided Kenny Irwin Jr. would not be back as his driver in 2000, Yates approached Rudd, who jumped at the opportunity.
"If this team had been available seven years ago, I wouldn't have become a team owner," Rudd says. "That's one of the reasons I did what I did, because at the time, I was leaving Hendrick Motorsports and Robert Yates was having great success with Davey Allison.
"Those rides were not around, so I started my own team. Life would have been simpler if that ride had been available then. Things happened for a reason, and this opportunity popped up."
The #28 Texaco/Havoline Ford Taurus is annually one of the top rides in Winston Cup racing, but it hasn't been driven to Victory Lane since Ernie Irvan was the driver in 1997. Rudd gladly accepted the challenge of putting it back into Victory Lane.
"I don't see pressure; I see an opportunity to win," Rudd says. "Pressure is trying to figure out how to be competitive on $4 million a year. Being able to step into a car when you don't have to worry about horsepower or whether this team had enough aerodynamic help at the wind tunnel-you don't have to worry about that. You have the best equipment going in."
Rudd can also benefit from having Dale Jarrett, the '99 Winston Cup champion, as his teammate. "I have a lot of respect for Dale and the way he handles himself on and off the racetrack," Rudd says. "I see a great opportunity there where we have two experienced drivers who can help each other and the team." 1999 Final Standing: 31st Place
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt KensethAfter dueling each other the past two seasons for the NASCAR Busch Series title, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth will renew that rivalry in the battle for the NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award. Earnhardt will be in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Kenseth in a Roush Racing Ford.
"There is going to be a lot of attention placed on them. It'll be tough for those guys to stay focused and do their jobs, because when you're a rookie, you feel like every eye is on you," says Jeff Gordon. "It really comes down to the equipment they get. If they get the equipment, those guys will do well."
Don't expect too much out of either driver, though, because unlike Tony Stewart in 1999, most rookies experience ups and downs.
"I think they'll do well," Ricky Rudd says. "They'll have their good days and their bad days."