Once laden with grimaces and disappointment, Jeff Gordon suddenly found many reasons to smile in 1996.
Shaking off poor finishes at Daytona and Rockingham, the defending NASCAR Winston Cup titlist was on a tear, reeling off a trio of victories in Richmond, Darlington, and Bristol, a runner-up at North Wilkesboro, and a third-place finish at Atlanta.
As a result of their immediate resurgence, the No. 24 DuPont Automotive Finishes Chevrolet team found themselves from 42nd to a sixth in points, 93 points behind Dale Jarrett.
It was as if Ray Evernham and the '95 champs turned on the "On" switch with their performance, taking no prisoners with their ascent back to the upper echelon of the title chase.
Still, 24 races were remaining and every competitor knew that the champion was not crowned in the blooming month of April. However, momentum and agendas would be determined during the next six races.
Martinsville, Talladega, Sears Point, Charlotte, Dover, and Pocono were on the cards, with the trend going from short track racing to super speedway action mixed with a little road course flavor.
Teams would evaluate their performances, pondering their chances for Cup glory. In the case of Gordon and company, a string of poor results would destroy any progress made from winter's waning days.
Race No. 8: Goody's Headache Powder 500 at Martinsville Speedway
With points, victories, and stellar finishes up for the taking, the NASCAR Winston Cup tour flocked to Martinsville, Va., for the final short track race of the first half of the season.
April 21's Goody Headache Powder 500 at the tiny, paper-clipped, 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway was probably a welcome sight to the Cup contenders, as in "Thank the Lord we won't have to race at these tracks for the next four months!"
Qualifying was quite the unique story for that race weekend, with Ricky Craven capturing his first career Busch Pole Award behind the wheel of his No. 41 Kodiak Chevy.
Another surprise on Friday was shotgun rider Kyle Petty, longtime driver of the No. 42 Coors Light Pontiac Grand Prix ride.
Other notables included Lynchburg, Va., native Stacy Compton in ninth (who would establish himself as quite the Truck racer in '97-beyond) as well as longtime staying power Dave Marcis, known as the man with the wingtip shoes.
Meanwhile for Gordon and his No. 24 team, it was a somewhat disappointing session, placing in 13th out of 36 cars. Not bad, but not exactly the effort that the DuPont crew was looking for a good start on Sunday.
When Sunday arrived, so did those unexpected front row starters, pacing the field for the first 95 laps. Craven led the opening 28 trips with Petty pacing the field for 67 laps.
Unfortunately for Craven and Petty, their encouraging starts would translate to somewhat disappointing afternoons, finishing 12th and 30th, respectively.
Rusty Wallace stormed his way to the front from the fifth position, piloting his No. 2 Miller Ford Thunderbird for the next 128 circuits.
Staying thick in the hunt for another victory in '96 was the familiar Rainbow Warrior colors of the DuPont Chevy, preying "The King of the Short Tracks."
Save for brief "interruptions" by Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, and Ernie Irvan, the 500-lapper was the "Wallace and Gordon Show," serving as one of several occasions that pitted these two stark leadfooters on the short tracks of NASCAR.
Both combatants led for a combined total of 375 laps, virtually racing in the front for 75 percent of the event. Talk about dominance on these smaller venues.
Ultimately, Wallace would best Gordon to the checkers, with the defending champ fading late in the race to a third-place finish as Irvan worked his way around the Californian in the closing 15 laps.
Although Gordon lost the battle, the war was starting to favor "The Kid," leapfrogging four spots in the title chase to second place, just 76 points behind new points leader Earnhardt.
Jarrett, who had a heckuva day from a 29th starting spot, salvaged his struggles with a 12th place effort, although he would relinquish the Cup lead and fall back to third, 82 markers behind "The Intimidator."
Race No. 9: Winston Select 500 at Talladega Superspeedway
Things would truly start to scramble hectically when the series raced their way on the 33 degrees of banking at the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway for the April 28 running of the Winston Select 500.
This mammoth facility played a pivotal role in the championship in its traditional two races, serving the role as (sorry, Frank Thomas!) "The Big Hurt." (The 1996 DieHard 500 will be covered in Part IV.)
Never mind the fact that it was an all-Robert Yates Racing front row for the race, or that infrequent racers Jeff Purvis and Mike Skinner qualified sixth and seventh, ahead of perennial front runners Gordon (11th), Terry and Bobby Labonte (13th and 14th), Earnhardt (16th), and Mark Martin (37th).
Disregard the fact that it was the second of four races that made up the Winston Million bonus, eligible for any driver who won three of NASCAR's crown jewel events (Daytona 500, Winston Select 500, Coca-Cola 600, and the Southern 500).
Let it be known that the spring race at Talladega shook up the Cup racing scene for many years, perhaps more than realized at the time of this memorable event.
Reason No. 1
Bill Elliott, who was having a solid season in '96 in the 10th spot, experienced one of his career-worst accidents on lap 77.
Racing mid-pack, Elliott's No. 94 McDonald's Ford launched airborne, flying nose-ward on the grass portion of the backstretch. His car never flipped over, but nevertheless, made a rough landing on its nose, crumpling up the front fenders and its driver.
Elliott would suffer a broken leg in the solo crash, an injury that would hamper "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" for the better part of his late career.
Although he would return to Victory Lane in 2002-'03, the 16-time Most Popular Driver would take some time to recover the confidence he had as one of the gunslingers of the sport.
Reason No. 2
Gordon, who battled his way from 11th to the lead (for 18 laps), would make an ill-advised move on lap 129 as he attempted to draft his way to the front pack.
Misjudging his fender clearance between himself and the No. 6 of Martin, the two drivers tangled on the short chute leading into turn one, causing their cars to break loose and out of control.
Spinning helplessly, Martin and Gordon's machines became road blocks for their competitors behind them, as cars were endlessly collected in a tremendous, horrifying accident.
Martin's hood sheared off his Thunderbird, with front clips and components scattering all over the corner with contenders taking a beating in the points as well as physically with their bodies.
Even more frightening was Craven's role in the crash, as his car flipped on its roof, shooting across the apron of turn one toward the catchfence separating the racing surface toward the boundary of the track and the grassy forestland.
In all, 13 drivers were involved in the inevitable "Big One," either having their days cut short or returning to the track with damaged goods for points.
The End Result of 'Dega
Upon reflection, this accident, along with the early season DNFs at Daytona and Rockingham, would haunt Gordon for the long-haul of '96, although it would not be so transparent in late April.
As a result, the No. 24 team, despite their repair efforts and Gordon's drive in a battered machine, would finish 33rd, dropping to fourth in the points race, 177 behind Earnhardt.
Meanwhile, Sterling Marlin, who had been something of a master on the restrictor plate tracks, urged his Kodak machine to a resounding victory over Jarrett, Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, and Michael Waltrip.
Talladega greatly put a skid to Gordon's momentum, with a costly move by the young gun that wiped out 12 other drivers from his misjudgment.
His accident would take the No. 24 team some time to recover, although it was not in the manner of Elliott and Craven's cases.
Race No. 10: Save Mart Supermarket 300 at Sears Point International Raceway
With Elliott on the sidelines and Craven battered and bruised following their spills at Talladega, the 300-kilometer event at Sears Point took on an unusual look for the fans and teams.
Tommy Kendall, a renowned sports car and road course driver, was tabbed to drive the No. 94 for Elliott-Hardy Racing while Dale Earnhardt Incorporated/NASCAR Craftsman Truck racer Ron Hornaday Jr. stood by for Craven's No. 41 ride.
As for the race, Gordon found himself in position, yet again, to capture win number four of the year. Instead, he reverted to his mistake-prone ways of Talladega, spinning his tires on a late-race restart while leading the field down to the first two turns.
Driver 24's error costed him a victory as well as five spots, finishing the day in bittersweet sixth place, losing 20 points to points leader Earnhardt.
Wallace went on to win the race, with Martin, Wally Dallenbach Jr., Earnhardt, and pole-sitter Labonte trailing the Miller ride.
Race No. 11: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway
Nothing says Memorial Day weekend for NASCAR fans better than the Coca-Cola 600 at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway, a race testing the durability of a driver, team, and equipment.
Who needs Man Versus Nature when you could tune into the four hour, epic 600-miler with NASCAR's best drivers shooting for the $160,000 (and more) award?
Unique to other racing events on the schedule, CMS hosted Busch Pole qualifying night on Wednesday, May 22.
For the third straight year, Gordon drove his mount to the pole with an average speed of 183.773 mph, with Craven starting alongside his racing friend.
Cup title challengers Labonte, Jarrett, and Earnhardt placed fourth, 15th, and 20th, with the No. 5 team starting within closing distance of his youthful teammate.
As for the race, carnage and drama spelled out the name of this particular game. From the usual moderate amount of lead changes to the pathetic amount of lead lap cars by the night's end, the 600 did not disappoint.
More memorable than Jarrett scoring a tremendous 11.98 second victory over Earnhardt, Labonte, Gordon, and Ken Schrader were the two big wrecks which saw their share of SportsCenter exposure that evening.
On lap 155, a restart was botched by the hands of Ted Musgrave, whose No. 16 Family Channel/Primestar Ford T-Bird had some mechanical ailments that bottle-necked the pack into panic mode.
Suddenly, the cars trailing Musgrave had to decide whether to dive on the inside or maneuver around the sputtering white and blue Roush Racing car.
Petty, who had little time to check up with the No. 16's problems, made incidental contact with the Ford, sending Musgrave right into the middle of the lead pack.
Initially making contact with '95 600 winner Bobby Labonte, Musgrave's machine was devastated by multiple machines, involving Wallace, Martin (who somehow snaked his way out of the mess), Hut Stricklin, Lake Speed, Dick Trickle, Johnny Benson Jr., Robert Pressley, John Andretti, and Joe Nemechek.
For Petty, despite his "honest mistake," was summoned by NASCAR to sit in the "penalty box" for five laps, cited for rough driving.
Adding insult to injury, team owner Felix Sabates unleashed a verbal tirade against the Winston Cup officials in an attempt to plead their case to no avail.
Consequently, Petty was tacked on additional two-lap infraction, effectively ending their hopes for a great finish in a race won by the second-generation driver in 1987.
Keep the Petty incident in mind, as a colorful story will result from this controversial call and reaction by both parties.
However, the big accident that night involved Craven and Benson, racing out there for points and respectability.
As Benson's car slid and smacked the outside retaining wall between turns one and two, his No. 30 Pennzoil Pontiac slid down the 24 degrees of banking, immediately making contact with an unlucky Craven.
Likened to an incredible explosion, sheet metal was ripped apart from both machines, with Craven's Kodiak Chevy's right side completely torn off, exposing the roll-cage compartment.
Benson's machine was a total loss, with its rear clip obliterated and its front end mashed in like a botched nose job.
Fortunately, both drivers would escape the harrowing incident with nothing more than their breaths knocked out of them.
As for the spoils, those belonged to Hickory, N.C.'s Jarrett, collecting victory number two of the year. Jarrett positioned himself for a shot at the million bucks for the No. 88 Quality Care Service/Red Carpet Lease Ford at Darlington in September.
Team 24 had a respectable showing, leading 101 laps but fading from the pole to a fourth place showing, losing an additional ten points to Earnhardt. Gordon remained in fourth, however, 197 behind "The Man In Black."
Race No. 12: Miller 500 at Dover Downs International Speedway
Perhaps discontent with their somewhat disappointing finish at Charlotte, Gordon announced his presence as the defending Cup victor by scoring the pole for the Jun. 2 running of the Miller 500 at Dover (154.785 mph).
Surprisingly, Trickle grabbed the outside pole for the No. 19 Healthsource Ford team run by Tri-Star Motorsports, infamous for winning the number one qualifying spot in the '94 Daytona 500 with Loy Allen Jr.
As for Gordon's challengers, teammate Labonte along with nemeses Earnhardt anrd Jarrett started fourth, 14th, and sixth.
Making the publicity trails on that late spring afternoon was the Petty/Sabco team, which arrived at Dover decked out in a black, red, and silver scheme, similar to the No. 3's famous Goodwrench colors.
Sabates, openly protesting with NASCAR's penalties from the previous race at Charlotte, took a stand against "the man." By racing with an Earnhardt-like car, Sabates felt that even the Kannapolis, N.C. native would "get away with" their mistake simply because he was, well, Dale Earnhardt.
For your information, the newly-designed Coors Pontiac finished 18th, four laps off the pace after starting in 15th spot.
Focusing on the title subject, it looked like Gordon was going to compete just for a win with little to no points progress made, as the Nos. 3, 5, and 88 cars ran right along with the DuPont Chevy.
Jarrett would run into some misfortune on lap 360, crashing alone along the backstretch of "The Monster Mile."
While the diligent Yates team repaired their battered mount, DJ would have to settle for a 36th place DNF by day's conclusion.
With Jarrett sidelined, the attention turned toward the front of the field, as Gordon, who led for 307 of 500 circuits, urged his way to his elusive fourth win of the '96 season over Terry Labonte, Earnhardt, Irvan, and Bobby Labonte.
What made the victory even sweeter for Gordon? It happened to be his second consecutive trip to the winner's circle at this concrete beast, right in the backyard of DuPont's headquarters in Wilmington.
Though not picking up a bunch of points, the No. 24 team climbed up to third in the chase, 182 behind Earnhardt, but just 46 markers from "The Iceman" in second place.
Race No. 13: UAW-GM Teamwork 500 at Pocono Raceway
Long Pond, Pa.
Whether or not Gordon's team circled the date on Jun. 9, 1996 is yet to be known. But for any Gordon or NASCAR fan, the spring Pocono race irked some bad memories for the No. 24 team.
Leading late in the going of the '95 UAW-GM Teamwork 500, Gordon infamously missed a shift, effectively handing the victory over to teammate Labonte, while relegating himself to a 16th place nightmare.
Living by their mantra of "Refuse To Lose," Gordon and Evernham were on an absolute mission with qualifying, grabbing their third consecutive Busch Pole award with a speed of 169.725 mph.
Once again driving a stout, dominating Chevrolet, Gordon led for 94 laps en route to win number five of 1996, beating Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine, Martin, and Bobby Hamilton to the stripe.
His title challengers in Earnhardt, Labonte, and Jarrett had somewhat inconsistent finishes, placing 32nd, seventh, and 38th for the final tally.
Earnhardt's horrible finish, attributed to an expired motor on lap 135, allowed for the points race to truly tighten up substantially.
Labonte and Gordon were only 52 and 64 markers from taking the points lead away from Earnhardt, with a race-margin over fourth place Jarrett in the championship battle.
Looming ahead for Gordon and the Winston Cup boys included Michigan, Daytona, Loudon, Pocono (again, yes), Talladega, and Indianapolis.
Save for New Hampshire, the Cup gang were going to take it to Warp Nine (for you Trekkies) on not only the speed, but the dramatics on the track.
Sitting content in third, would Gordon capitalize on his opponents' struggles while maintaining their torrid consistency from round three?
Find out in Part IV of Tomorrow Never Knows, when we look back on the next six races of the memorable 1996 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season.