With the new year comes the new racing season, and we begin things all over again-Daytona, Las Vegas, Rockingham, and on and on.
We test before going to Daytona and get all that behind us before we actually begin racing. We do all this in preparation for a better year than our last, yet sometimes things remain a whole lot the same.
I don't look for a lot of changes in 1999. I look more for a continuation of 1998.
Jeff Gordon was the driver to beat in 1998, and chances are good that he will be the driver to beat in 1999.
Listen, these things are sometimes difficult to explain, but it's like Jerry Lee Lewis used to sing: "When you're hot you're hot, and when you're not you're not." Right now, Jeff Gordon is hot, and I don't see how going from one season to another will stop him. I say that because of the way racing has always been and probably always will be.
Take when Bill Elliott was hot along there in 1985, 1987, and 1988. Well, everybody figured that nobody could beat him. He won 11 races in 1985 with the Harry Melling team, and he won six races in 1987 and six in 1988.
Look at Dale Earnhardt. He had some good streaks going too. He won 11 races in 1987, five in 1986, five in 1989, and nine in 1990. Then I think he won six in 1993.
And I had some good streaks during my driving career. I won 27 races in 1967, including 10 straight in that year. I had some good streaks going in the '70s, and we usually never knew why we were winning the races we did. I know in 1967 we'd just come home, go over the car a little bit, fix a few things, and take off again. We didn't know why we were winning. We just were, and we didn't stop to think about why.
Jeremy Mayfield tasted success...
Jeremy Mayfield tasted success early in 1998 and was the surprise of the season. He hopes to repeat this scene at Pocono more often in 1999.
Darrell Waltrip has had some good streaks. He won 12 races in 1981 and a dozen more in 1982. Twice he has won seven races during a season, and four times he has won six races in a year.
Rusty Wallace won 10 races in 1993, and Mark Martin has had some good years.
You don't sit around on a log and try to figure out why everything is going your way, not if you're smart. You better get all you can while you can, because, buddy, let me tell you something-when the little hole comes in the sack, everything is going to pour out on the ground, and one day you're going to be standing there wondering what happened.
It happened to me. It happened to Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, and several others. It too will happen to Jeff Gordon. Nothing goes on forever. And, as they say, what goes up must come down sometime. Believe me, it seems like it falls faster than it climbs.
Anyway, as I pointed out, I don't see too many changes coming up this year. I don't think anybody new is going to come in and take the crown away from Gordon. Jeremy Mayfield started the season last year putting a lot of pressure on Gordon, but then Mayfield went away.
Just like last year, Mark Martin will make Gordon work for his fourth championship, and Martin did a good job in the chase of 1998, but he came up short.
Rusty Wallace has won track championships and series titles, and I think he could give Gordon a good go of it, providing his team gets more consistent.
Terry Labonte, the driver who kept Gordon from winning four straight Winston Cup championships with his victory for the title in 1996, could make it real tough on Gordon. They are teammates, but that doesn't seem to make much difference to Labonte.
I think our team will be much better in 1999. John Andretti, our driver, seems confident that we will do better this year. I feel pretty certain we will win a few races. Dale Inman, our crewchief and team manager for the past several years, has retired. He was my crewchief when I was racing, and he was the best. We will miss him, but things change in racing. People move on and new people arrive.
Drivers get hot and drivers get cool. They can't explain why because they don't know why. I can't tell you why either.
Gordon has everything going for him right now. He is a good driver. He has a good team with a lot of resources, a good crewchief, and a good sponsor. He seems to be set for a long and successful career. He is having a good career, but you don't always bounce from one mountain top to another. There are valleys out there to cross, and he will come to them. Then he, like some of the rest of us, will wonder what in the world happened. But I doubt he will be able to explain it either.
That's just the way stock car racing is-strange and sometimes mysterious.