HAMPTON, Ga. -- When Fireball Roberts died of injuries sustained in a crash in 1964, the sport of stock car racing lost its on-track leader.
Then Richard Petty stepped in.
When Petty's distinguished career started to wane nearly 20 years ago, the sport again was without its on-track leader.
Then came Dale Earnhardt.
Now that Earnhardt's gone, who will become the sport's figurative and emotional front-runner?
While Gordon doesn't possess Roberts' flare, Petty's charm or Earnhardt's determination, he brings his own brand of sophistication to the sport. He is meticulous and precise behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Monte Carlo. And unlike the heroes before him, he makes it look so easy.
Now in his eighth full-time season, Gordon is off to a faster start than Roberts, Petty or Earnhardt. His 53 victories are more than either Roberts or Earnhardt posted in their first eight seasons His three championships in his first eight years are better than Petty's.
The void created by Earnhardt's death Feb. 18 on the final lap of the Daytona 500 has left the sport scrambling for a new leader.
Perhaps out of respect to what Earnhardt accomplished seven championships, more than $41.5 million in earnings and the sport's largest marketing machine and the way he died, no driver is willing to take charge. But many are willing to put Gordon out front for now.
''I think it's going to take a collective effort,'' Dale Jarrett said. ''This isn't something that even one person out here could start to fill his shoes in that respect.
''If you ask me the question, who could take over that role or who is most likely to do that, I'd have to say Jeff Gordon is in that position.
''But we're not going to put that on one person. It's going to take a lot of us to step up and help carry this sport and continue what Dale built here. I don't mean any respect to the other drivers because we have a lot of great drivers and individuals out here, but it would take a lot more than one or two or three to replace Dale Earnhardt in making all that happen.''
By Don Coble
Gordon's victory Sunday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway put him in second place in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings. It also may have triggered the kind of momentum that becomes infectious. When Gordon wins, he wins in bunches. He's won at least seven races in five of the last six years, and three of those wins have come at the Atlanta Motor Speedway site of this Sunday's Cracker Barrel 500.
''I've been telling people how strong this team is,'' Gordon said. ''I think there's only greater things to come. We've just got to keep using our heads, and keep doing and keep building this momentum.
''Ever since '95, since the first time we ever went for a championship, our goal is to win every year. Our goal was that last year. But I don't think we were really in position or prepared to do that. This year, we're well prepared. The team has really come together.''
A year ago, Gordon took a back seat to the re-emergence of Earnhardt as a championship contender. Earnhardt finished second in the points race and vowed this season to break the record of seven championships he shared with Petty.
Of all the drivers, most would agree that Gordon, 30, now has the best chance to win a record eight championships. For now, however, Gordon isn't as willing to accept his role as heir apparent.
''When I was a kid growing up, as I got into the sport, Dale Earnhardt became my hero,'' Gordon said. ''I never knew how great he was as a race car driver. I was able to be around him enough to know he was also a very good person. Any race driver will tell you he's their hero.
''I can promise you, I don't want to fill his shoes. Dale Earnhardt cannot be replaced. This sport will go on and continue to be successful."
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