NASCAR & Auto Racing

Jeff Gordon’s a proud papa with a fifth Cup title on his mind

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Hendrick Motorsports veteran Jeff Gordon is a preseason favorite to win this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, but Thursday he had more personal things on his mind.

Like his 7-month-old daughter, Ella Sofia, who, Gordon said, started crawling Thursday.

“She got her legs up beneath her and kind of lunged,” explained Gordon, the four-time Cup champion and series all-time money leader with more than $93 million in earnings. “Officially, I say she started crawling this morning.”

Ella Sofia will travel with Gordon and his wife, Ingrid Vandebosch, a former model, to most of the races this year. Gordon is excited and showed it at Thursday’s media day at Daytona International Speedway.

While other drivers were talking setups and pit stops, Gordon was having fun chatting about pregnancy, births and diapers.

“It’s the greatest experience,” Gordon said of being a father. “It’s an amazing emotion.”

After coming to grips with nighttime feedings and disrupted sleep, Gordon said Ella Sofia was bringing much joy to his life.

“It’s amazing how it keeps getting better every month,” said Gordon, who has been picked No. 1 in 2008 by the media poll, which tallies votes of more than 200 media members. “From the first moment you see her, you’re in awe.”

Gordon will start the Cup campaign Feb. 17 when he attempts to win his fourth Daytona 500 after victories in 1997, 1999 and 2005. First business, however, is the Budweiser Shootout here Saturday night. Gordon should be right in the hunt in the 70-lap event and throughout the 36-race regular Cup season.

After finishing second in series points to teammate Jimmie Johnson in 2007, Gordon is looking to go one better this year.

“A championship – it’s the same every year,” said Gordon of his goals. “It’s a championship or bust.”

Last season, Gordon recorded six wins, 21 top fives, 30 top 10s and seven poles, good enough most years to win a championship. But the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet failed by 77 points to catch Johnson, who finished with 10 victories in capturing his second consecutive title.

Gordon said he is working hard to reverse positions in 2008.

“On the whole, we were very consistent (last year),” Gordon said. “But speed-wise we weren’t the fastest. We need to be a little bit more aggressive with the setup. We didn’t win a championship, so it’s business as usual to get ourselves into victory lane as often as possible and win the title,”

Gordon will not only have to keep an eye on Johnson this year at Hendrick but also Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has joined the team from DEI. Gordon sees Earnhardt doing well but knows the move puts Junior in the spotlight.

“The pressure has never been higher on him,” Gordon said. “Now he’s going to show what he’s capable of. I think this is going to be the real test of what Junior is capable of doing. But I think he’s going to have a great year.”

Gordon said he believes Earnhardt Jr. is already off to a good start at Hendrick.

“He could have come in with the attitude of, ‘I’m the man,’ but he hasn’t done that at all,” Gordon said. “He’s done a great job of coming in and being respected.”