Thursday, May 7, 1998 | 5:55 a.m.
When Jerry Nadeau found a Winston Cup ride last year, a friend said, "You aren't ready for that, yet."
Nadeau surprised his friend and many others when he burst on the scene in 1997 as a complete unknown, starting and finishing five races for Winston Cup team owner Richard Jackson.
None of the finishes was better than 30th, but the exposure piqued considerable interest in the 27-year-old driver from Danbury, Conn.
Among those watching were owner-driver Bill Elliott, seeking to field a second car. Then there was NFL quarterback Dan Marino, looking for an opportunity to become a Winston Cup car owner.
They got together and put Nadeau in their car.
"I saw Jerry in action last season and was impressed by what I saw," Elliott said. "He was put in a tough situation and made the most of it. From what I've seen, Jerry is anxious to learn, anxious to drive and anxious to win."
Marino, enjoying his first season in NASCAR, is similarly impressed.
"He's worked at getting to this level his whole life," Marino said.
When the season began, Nadeau was the odd-man-out in the rookie-of-the-year competition, facing the more-heralded Steve Park, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Kevin Lepage.
Park has since been sidelined by a crash, but Irwin and Lepage have provided plenty of competition.
In fact, after the first 10 races, Nadeau is third in the standings, trailing Irwin by 30 points and Lepage by 12. But, with two-thirds of the season remaining, that deficit is far from insurmountable.
"It may cross my mind," Nadeau said of the rookie chase. "But, when you're out there, that doesn't really mean anything.
"The more and more I do this, the more and more I realize how grateful I am to be doing this. In my case, I basically came here brand new. I've got a pretty steep learning curve."
Nadeau's background is hardly traditional for a stock car driver, although he did start out like many others in go-karts, where he won several championships.
"I learned a lot from my dad, Gerry, while I was growing up," he explained. "He wasn't afraid to yell and get on my toes to do my job because he hated to lose and I hated to lose.
"He made me the hungriest guy on the race track."
After go-karts, Nadeau moved up to through the ranks in road racing, even going to Europe in 1996 to run in the Formula Opal Series.
There, he had five top-three finishes in 10 starts. Then it was back home to try stock cars, where he was considered an outsider.
All through his learning process, Nadeau supported himself by working with his father as a roofer and construction worker.
"I'm not afraid of hard work," he said.
And he's not short on patience.
"This is a three-year program, and I'm not looking to go out there and set the world on fire," Nadeau said. "I'm looking to learn from all the drivers, to gain respect from them."
Gaining respect won't be a problem if he keeps showing his tough side at races. Last month in Martinsville, Va., seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt bumped his way past the rookie on the tight, half-mile oval.
"I bumped him right back and stayed on his back bumper for about 50 laps," Nadeau said. "If you don't stand up for yourself, it can be pretty bad.
"If an alligator was pulling me down in the water, I'd somehow get out of it. I've always had that determination."