Robbie Loomis couldn't say no when Jeff Gordon called before last season to offer him one of the best jobs in NASCAR.
Gordon's timing was perfect, because the only impediment Loomis could see to becoming crew chief for the three-time Winston Cup champion had already been removed.
"Dale Inman once told me that you never follow a legend," Loomis said, relating the advice he got from Richard Petty's longtime crew chief. "And I wasn't going to be the first one after Ray Evernham."
Team manager Brian Whitesell had been the buffer, calling the shots after Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports late in 1999 to become a car owner.
Still, Loomis knew as the 2000 season began that his success would be measured against that of Evernham, who guided Gordon to the titles and the first 47 of his 55 victories. But Loomis, who became crew chief for Petty in 1991, wasn't worried.
"I couldn't feel any more pressure to win than I had at Petty Enterprises," Loomis said. "I thought if it was still going to be that way, I was going to surround myself with the best driver, the best car and the best team."
But the start of the season was a disaster, and after seven races Gordon was 10th in the standings and each time had finished lower than his starting position. Later in the season, there were three victories, but Gordon wound up ninth in the points -- his worst showing since finishing 14th as a rookie in 1993.
So the talk began. Loomis would never be another Evernham, and Gordon had become just another contender.
"I didn't worry about that," Loomis said. "The team looked at what was going on and realized we were hitting all around the target but just not hitting the target itself."
But this year, the bull's-eye is wearing out. Gordon has the points lead and is on the sort of roll he experienced so often under Evernham -- the kind that resulted in a record-tying 13 victories in 1998.
Gordon has won three times this season, has five finishes of first or second in the last six points races and had led 610 of the last 800 laps. During the run, he also won the non-points NASCAR all-star race last month.
On Sunday, he races on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., where he hasn't lost since 1997.
Loomis, who has nine victories as a crew chief, smiles when asked now about the Evernham comparisons. But he minimizes his role in Gordon's surge.
"Somebody told me a long time ago that you don't win races for great drivers like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon," Loomis said. "You just make sure you don't lose them."
He recalls a bad pit stop that put Gordon behind two weeks ago in Brooklyn, Mich. At that point, Loomis realized everything had been put on the driver's back.
Gordon got lucky with a late caution and won with a last-lap pass of Ricky Rudd, to whom he finished second Sunday in Long Pond, Pa.
"I see him do things like that all the time," Loomis said. "I don't think Jeff Gordon has ever gotten the credit he deserves. He is what makes it happen, and we are just the tools surrounding him."
Gordon said he was never disappointed with Loomis, feeling it would just take time for all the pieces to fit together.
"He's a tremendous talent," Gordon said. "He knows all about the race cars, I like his attitude and he's always calm."
Gordon isn't surprised by the team's resurgence, and neither is Evernham, the point man for Dodge's return to Winston Cup after a 16-year absence.
"It's like a major league football franchise," Evernham said of Hendrick Motorsports. "They build a strong network and go out and bring in new talent every year to keep the performance strong."
Although he's optimistic, Loomis concentrates on maintaining an even keel. He has never forgotten Petty's advice on avoiding the ups and downs of racing.
"The King told me that you're going to have some good days and some bad ones," Loomis said. "But there is no reason why this winning can't continue."
Still, he takes nothing for granted.
"When I walk down the street at home I like to bounce a rubber ball," Loomis said. "One of my neighbors asked me why I did that, and I said it was because every time the ball hits the pavement you never know which way it will bounce."
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End Adv for Thursday, June 21
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