NASCAR & Auto Racing

Gordon comes full circle

The irony is not lost on Jeff Gordon.

“You take Kyle Busch,” says Gordon, the four-time Sprint Cup champion. “I will be behind him maybe not running quite as fast and he comes off the corner sideways, taps the wall about the start-finish line and goes on. And he does it lap after lap after lap.

“I am sitting there with a grin on my face because he's not really driving away from me and I am saving my stuff and staying away from the wall. There are times when that pays off for him, but I am comfortable with where I am, too.”

He knows that what he's thinking when watching the 23-year-old Busch blossom into NASCAR stardom is the same thing drivers like Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace were thinking when Gordon first emerged as a young star.

Gordon was just shy of his 23rd birthday when he got the first of his 81 career victories, in May 1994 in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

He got the 81st here in October of last season, winning the Bank of America 500 for his sixth victory of 2007. It gave him a 68-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson as Gordon sought a fifth championship in a season very much like the days of dominance when he won 40 races and three championships between 1995 and 1998.

But he hasn't won since, and people wonder what's gone wrong with the driver once nicknamed “Wonder Boy.”

“Yes,” Gordon admits, “I find myself saying the same things about the young guys they used to say about me. The reason I can say it is I've been there. I understand.”

There is, however, the other side of that coin.

As each of the sport's greatest stars moved forward in his career, at some point each faced times when things didn't come as easily as they seemingly once did.

Earnhardt won at least twice each year from 1983 through 1991, winning 45 races and four championships in those nine seasons. He won only once and finished 12th in the standings in 1992, but then came back to win titles in 1993 and 1994.

Wallace followed his 1989 championship season by winning only five races over the next three seasons and finishing outside the top five in points each year. But he won 10 races in 1993 and eight the next year.

Darrell Waltrip won 43 races and three championships from 1981 through 1986, but he only won once in 1987 when he defected from Junior Johnson's team to Rick Hendrick's. Over the two seasons following that, he won eight times.

“You go through periods when you're not as successful because that's life,” Jeff Burton says. “There are a lot of things that have to line up to make everything work.

“Jeff is a victim of his own success. … It's unrealistic to expect anyone to go out every single year and knock off six or eight wins. … This is hard. When people make this look easy it's because they're good and everything lines up. They make it look easy and when it no longer does, it's not because they can't do it anymore. It's because it's hard.”

There are those who would offer other explanations for the 35-race winless streak Gordon finds himself trying to snap in Saturday night's Bank of America 500.

Gordon did hit the wall jarringly hard this year in a race at Las Vegas, and it has often been said that drivers change after taking a jolt like that.

“I've hit a lot more walls than some of the young guys these days, and when they hit maybe it doesn't hurt as much as it did when I started,” Gordon says. “I am only scared when I see a hit like the one at Vegas coming.”

He also has made gobs and gobs of money – by this time next year Gordon will almost certainly have become the first NASCAR driver to win more than $100million in his career. He'll pass the $98million mark this weekend.

“There are guys out there who you say ‘Why is he out here riding around?'” Gordon says. “I've seen that. Is it just the money is too good? Every guy tells himself, ‘I don't want to be in that position. I don't want to be doing it for the money or the glory or holding on to something that's not there.' But I've seen guys do it.”

Burton says anybody who thinks that's Gordon's problem is off base.

“Jeff might raise his hand and say ‘I'm done' a year from now or two years from now,” Burton says. “But if he does, I can assure you that in what he has left he would give 100 percent. I race with Jeff every week and he's not laying down.”

Gordon insists he'll keep right on asking himself the same three questions he always has when it comes to deciding how much longer he'll keep going.

“Am I competitive? Am I healthy enough? And am I enjoying myself?” Gordon says. “When any of those change, I am going to step away.”

The theory that gets under Gordon's skin most is when someone suggests he might not be racing as hard as he did before the birth of his daughter, Ella, 16 months ago. But ask him if the rumblings that he doesn't like to drive a loose race car are true and it's clear he thinks you're getting warmer.

“That's true, I have never liked to drive a loose race car,” Gordon says. “I want it to be perfect. I am always searching to get the car right and make it be fast. … There is a certain feel I like, with any car I've ever driven, and that is I like to drive feeling that right-front tire. With this car, that's the biggest challenge we've had.”

Gordon won six times and set a modern-era record with 30 top-10s last year as NASCAR's new car had a roll-out on shorter tracks.

This year, when the new car moved into full use, Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte have found themselves searching for the right combinations on bigger tracks such as Lowe's Motor Speedway.

“Nobody can drive a loose race car,” Gordon says, challenging the conventional wisdom that this is the key to success these days.

“That whole thing of loose is fast is crap. I've seen guys this year – like Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth at times – their car is free but it has grip. That's the difference, the difference between being loose and just sliding sideways and in being able to push the car out there to the edge and the car is still in the race track. When we've got our car freed up, we just don't have the grip.”

So why not, the critics muse, just take what Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, are doing with their cars and mimic it? Johnson, after all, is leading the Chase for the Sprint Cup while Gordon is 232 points back in eighth. Or why not try to figure out what the teams that are doing well are up to with their cars?

“If you try to copy your teammates and the garage area, you're going to become average,” Letarte says. “We've never been average. In 2006, we had some great runs and some awful runs, and that was a product of trying to be great.

“It doesn't matter what everybody else is doing. Jeff doesn't drive their cars and he doesn't drive like them. We're going to give him what he needs in the wheel.

“Why don't we run Jimmie's set-up? If it's their set-up and we're copying it, then you will never be better than them. We're not here to run fourth. If they thought it up, there's a piece of it you're going to be short on. They're going to beat you with their set-up.”

Some fans figure Letarte is the problem, ignoring the fact that he was in the same job last year when Gordon was denied a title only by Johnson's remarkable run of four straight wins that followed Gordon's victory here.

“That's why I am glad we've got Tony Jr. here,” Letarte jokes, invoking the name of Tony Eury Jr., the similarly scrutinized crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. “We can hang out together.”

Gordon defends Letarte as strongly as Earnhardt Jr. backs Eury Jr.

“If I didn't feel like Steve was the guy or Rick Hendrick didn't feel like it, he wouldn't be here,” Gordon says. “We believe in him and I think the guys on this team still believe in me. We just have to get it where it all clicks together.”

That's it, says Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers team.

“It's all about combinations and people and circumstances,” Wood says. “Everything has got to be right to be right.”

The way to get it right, Gordon says, has never changed.

“I know what it took last year,” he says. “We still have the same ingredients and tools and we just haven't as a group made it happen this year. The only way we're going to make it happen is to continue to work hard. It's there. We just have to find it.”

Gordon has won at least two races each season since 1994, a string of 14 straight seasons that's in peril. But his career has had downturns before.

He finished ninth in points in 2000, his first year after Ray Evernham left as crew chief, and then missed the Chase and wound up 11th in 2005 in Letarte's first full season.

Gordon says there was more to it than just the change in crew chiefs.

“The valleys I've had have been during the years where there were big transitions where somebody found something,” Gordon says. “But usually when somebody found something, it wasn't somebody my age or my same experience level who found it.

“The people who found it were some young guys that they just threw stuff at, and all of a sudden they went, ‘Wow.' The rest of us had to figure it out. And in the 1990s, that team was our team. We were the ones figuring it out.”

Now? Well, Gordon, 37, says he enjoys testing with young Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski.

“Steve can throw stuff at him that I would look at and just say, ‘No.'” Gordon says. “That's not because I am old and don't want to drive it, it's because my brain can't adapt to the concept. Fresh minds generate fresh ideas.

“I feel like I am as good of a driver, or better, than I've ever been because I am a much smarter driver. But at the same time there is no doubt that it is harder for me to adapt to new things than it was 15 years ago.”

And irony rears its head once more.

“I guess,” Gordon says. “I am just like everybody else my age.”

(* includes seven races with Brian Whitesell at end of 1999 season)

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