Robby Gordon cranks up next set of NASCAR rankings

By Jeff Birchfield

STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   The crossed flags are out for the halfway points. It's number four of our eight part series of statistically ranking 40 veteran NASCAR drivers. Today we will look at positions 24-20. To see where the others have ranked so far, you may get a copy of the past three day's STAR or visit our online edition.
   24. Robby Gordon (25 points)
   After being saddled with the reputation of loose cannon, Robby got the break he needed when Richard Childress signed him in 2001. Childress' faith in Gordon was rewarded with a surprise win at New Hampshire that closed out that season. With a SCCA Trans-Am championship in his background and four wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona, everyone had expected Gordon's first Winston Cup victory to come on a road course, not an oval.
   Like many other drivers in the series, one of Gordon's strongest attributes is a well-rounded background. Although he's been a winner in stock cars, sports cars and Indy cars, Robby's greatest success has come off-road racing, where he is a 2-time overall winner of the Baja 1000 and was the SCORE off-road champ for five straight years.
   In the biggest races, it would appear that Robby and the Childress organization might have a better chance of winning this year's Indianapolis 500 than the Daytona 500. In 2001, they finished eighth at Indy, overcoming a fire on pit road halfway in the event and Robby had the 1999 Indy 500 all wrapped up before running out of fuel on the last lap. By comparison, he finished 13th in last season's Daytona 500.
   23. Ken Schrader (26 points)
   Every year, Ken Schrader can count his name among those who have won big racing events somewhere in America. Last month he won the Winston West season opener at Phoenix. The problem is that none of those wins have been in Winston Cup races. So while Schrader has piled up sprint car, Late Model, Busch Series, Truck Series, ARCA, Northwest, Southwest and Winston West wins, he has been shut out of victory lane on the Cup side since 1991.
   If experience was the only criteria for judging a driver, no one would rank in the same league as Schrader. He is a racer's racer, someone who has turned laps at more tracks than anyone still driving at a high level. That experience can never hurt, but it hasn't translated to overwhelming Cup success.
   Still, Schrader's overall series record is nothing to scoff at with four wins and 23 pole positions. He won three straight Daytona 500 pole positions from 1988-90 and would have likely won the race itself in 1989, if not for Darrell Waltrip's outstanding fuel mileage at the end.
   22. Ricky Craven (27 points)
   Not surprising that the man who replaced Schrader in the Rick Hendrick-owned No. 25 Chevys back in 1997 would rank just one position higher in our standings. Craven at the time was seen as an enormous talent, after winning 1995 Rookie of the Year honors. Months later after being injured in a hard crash at Texas, many wondered if he could ever race at a top level again.
   The story of Craven's perseverance and working up to a prestigious ride with Cal Wells is one of the best in the sport. He rewarded the car owner's faith in him, by winning at Martinsville in 2001 and scoring three qualifying victories. Over his career, Craven has been the fastest in time trials on six occasions.
   Ricky has risen through the ranks of the NASCAR feeder system from the short tracks to becoming a Busch North Series champion to twice being runner-up for the Busch Series title. His career in the number two series shows a record of four wins and eight poles.
   Craven's 2002 numbers were favorable in the Tide car when compared to the previous year. Although he did not win a race and had one less top five finish, the New Englander made up for it by scoring two more top tens, one more pole and improving six spots in the point standings.
   21. Jeremy Mayfield (29 points)
   The David Bowie refrain "Under Pressure" applies to Mayfield better than any other driver entering the 2003 campaign. In 2002, Jeremy started off the year promising with a second place run at Vegas, but was only in the top five one more time the remainder of the season, while teammate Bill Elliott scored two wins.
   It is a familiar scenario for Mayfield, often overshadowed by veteran teammate Rusty Wallace, when he was at Penske Racing. However, Mayfield has proven he can win in the series, taking two checkered flags at Pocono and one at Fontana.
   One Pocono win when he booted Dale Earnhardt out of the way coming off the final corner was one for the ages. Jeremy has also been fast when he's the only one on the track, winning six pole positions.
   While his 26th place finish in the point standings in 2002 was a disappointment, Mayfield did score highly off the track as commercials he did for sponsors Dodge and Mountain Dew proved to be some of the most popular with viewers.
   20. Bobby Hamilton (31 points)
   As Emeril says, 'It's time to kick it up a notch,' as we get into the top half of drivers. Bobby Hamilton gains entrance in this group as the driver who brought Petty Enterprises back to victory lane after a dozen year absence in 1996. Bobby is also the last driver to win for Morgan-McClure and he gave Andy Petree his first win as a Winston Cup team owner.
   Hamilton did not have the season he envisioned in 2002 after a crash in a Truck race at Richmond, sidelined him with a broken shoulder. Still, he was only 54 points back of Mike Skinner in the year-end point standings, despite racing in five fewer events.
   The Nashville area driver has one of the most unique backgrounds in the sport. He started out helping his father and grandfather build cars for country music star and occasional race car driver Marty Robbins.
   He won the track championship at the famed Nashville Speedway, before getting his big break as a stunt driver in the movie "Days of Thunder". He led some laps at Phoenix in the Hendrick Motorsports "movie car" and ran in the top ten before being forced to drop out by NASCAR. Ironically, Phoenix is the same track where he picked up his first career victory, the aforementioned win for the famed Petty No. 43. With the current sponsorship woes, Hamilton won't be a part of the Cup season at the beginning of 2003, racing in the Truck Series instead.