The celebrations and formalities of Jeff Gordon's fourth NASCAR Winston Cup championship are over, and it's time to crank up again with a clean slate. Now that the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team is back on top, the focus this season, and perhaps for years to come, will be clearly on Gordon as Winston Cup's $10 Million Man pursues the record of seven championships shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
While it is premature, even silly, to be looking down the road with blurred vision toward an event that might never happen, Gordon, 30, has the best shot at setting a new mark. The Lord willing, age and time are in his favor.
While Gordon and crew chief Robbie Loomis are much more concerned about No. 5, Loomis admits that the record has crossed his mind. "It would be so special if I could be the guy to lead Jeff to a tie or better," says Loomis, who worked for the King and Kyle Petty at Petty Enterprises for 11 years before becoming Gordon's leader in late 1999. "That's because Richard is the one who taught me practically everything I know about the sport and the people in it. On second thought, maybe we'll just tie but not break the record.
"For now, Loomis is savoring his first Winston Cup championship in 11 years as a crew chief, only the second with Gordon. The championship probably means more to him than anyone at five-time champion Hendrick Motorsports, though he won't say that.
In fact, Loomis downplays his role in the rebuilding of a team that plummeted to ninth in points, the lowest since Gordon's 1993 rookie season, to championship status. He goes so far to say that Gordon is so good that most anyone with knowledge of Winston Cup cars and chassis could be his crew chief. "Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick were going to win another championship, and I'm just fortunate to be a part of it," Loomis says. Humility is a virtue, but Loomis deserves due credit.
When Loomis joined Gordon, the DuPont team was down and fragmented, having lost its crew chief, pit crew, chief mechanic and chief fabricator. Loomis faced the pressure of succeeding Ray Evernham, the only crew chief Gordon had known in NASCAR, except for Brian Whitesell, the current team manager, in an interim role. Gordon and Evernham won three championships and 47 races in less than six seasons. The impression was that the team without Evernham would self-destruct as a championship contender. Loomis wasn't a big name, and there were doubts he could get the job done
None of that bothered Loomis, an unflappable, calm, but intense, unpretentious native of Forest City, Fla., who stands 20 years deep in experience working on stock cars. When he was promoted to Richard Petty's crew chief in 1991, his goal was to win a race. That wasn't accomplished in the last two seasons of the King's incomparable 35-year driving career and not until 1996 with Bobby Hamilton. Having won a race, Loomis had an empty feeling, a gnawing in his gut to win a championship. He figured the overture from Gordon presented the opportunity.
"I realized I could win that championship," Loomis says. "I was as excited as a kid in a candy store at the prospect. I needed to be in an environment to learn how to be a better crew chief. I thought to myself that if at the end of the first season as Gordon's crew chief we had won two races and they fired me, that would be the best year I'd ever had. And I would be a much better crew chief for working with a driver of Jeff's caliber, Brian Whitesell and the proven Hendrick organization." (They won three races in 2000 and Loomis wasn't fired).