Nadeau becoming productive teammate

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2000

The decision by powerful Hendrick Motorsports to put unproven Jerry Nadeau in one of its cars was a major surprise.

Although Nadeau hadn't been in Winston Cup racing long enough to be considered a journeyman, his first two seasons gave little promise of anything else.

Now, after a half-season as the junior partner to Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, Nadeau is prospering. Gone is his habit of wrecking cars and finishing poorly.

''When you go out there knowing you have good equipment, it makes life easier,'' Nadeau said. ''If anything, I feel less pressure.''

With more assets than he had with the now-defunct Elliott-Marino team and underfunded Melling Racing, Nadeau is making a major contribution at Hendrick.

After a lone top-10 finish in his first 80 starts, Nadeau has three in his last six races. What's more, he's helping Gordon in his resurgence.

''At times, I think our situation is getting better because of him,'' said Gordon, a three-time series winner. ''You just look at how well they ran at Charlotte and a couple of other places.''

What began with Nadeau's team asking Gordon's for some help, has become a reciprocal deal.

''We were looking at the way we were doing our bodies and the way they were doing theirs, and we said, 'We need to change some things,''' Gordon said.

After a slow start this year, Gordon has won twice and is beginning to look again like a driver with 51 victories. Nadeau is flattered by compliments, but insists his new environment makes contributing easy.

''It's a dream come true just to be in this situation,'' he said. ''To have guys like Jeff and Terry as teammates means a lot.

''When we go to the race track and we're struggling a little, I've got people to go to get some help.''

Nadeau doesn't act surprised that his prospects have turned around. He thought he could prove his ability to drive a stock car given the proper tools.

Like so many drivers, he says ''chemistry'' is the most important factor in any team. It's about getting the right people in the right jobs and letting them do their work.

And, in a sport where no single-car team has won since 1998, camaraderie among the drivers is the key. Gordon says he and Nadeau have that.

''Jerry and I have a good line of communication,'' Gordon said. ''We're both young and aggressive, and our driving styles are similar.''

Both are 29, and left-foot brakers, meaning simultaneous use of the brake and gas pedal make them go faster through the turns but use more fuel. Gordon thinks an exchange of information will help both continue to improve.

Despite Gordon's status as NASCAR's biggest star and his own as somewhat of an upstart, Nadeau is very comfortable.

''We get along real good,'' he said. ''We respect each other. This kid's won three championships, so he's doing something right.''

There are no high-profile championships on Nadeau's resume, and his story is nothing out of the ordinary. The driver from Danbury, Conn., started like many in go-karts, and was encouraged by his father, a former racer.

But Nadeau didn't follow the route of most major league drivers. His arrival in Winston Cup racing in 1997 was really his NASCAR debut.

''You don't have to run Busch, you don't have to run late models,'' he said,'' referring to the limited time Gordon and Tony Stewart spent in stock cars before moving to Winston Cup. ''I think they proved that you can do it that way.''

Crew chief Tony Furr thought Nadeau's inexperience would make things more difficult than they have been.

''We expected a learning curve,'' Furr said. ''But he's a lot better than what I expected. He's come along real quick.''

Nadeau had very little money when he decided to try for a career in NASCAR. He is grateful for the chances he was given, and says he moved up because he gave ''110 percent.''

Now, with the recent improvement, a ride to the winner's circle no longer seems so improbable. In fact, it looked for a while like that could have come Sunday, when Nadeau ran as high as fourth in Watkins Glen, N.Y. But a handling problem put him out halfway through the Global Crossing.

''We can win this season,'' Nadeau said. ''But I don't know where it'll happen. We'll just have to wait and see.''

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