By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – He's driven sprint cars, midgets, modifieds, go-karts and IROC cars during his racing career – not to mention piloting a stock car to four Sprint Cup championships – all with equal aplomb.
That's why it's so confounding when Jeff Gordon looks back at 2008 and all the trouble he had adapting to NASCAR's new-style car, otherwise known as the Car of Tomorrow.
"The new car is a whole different animal," Gordon said. "The biggest challenge is just figuring that out."
Gordon once joked that he could probably even drive a forklift if he had to, yet he just couldn't quite seem to get the hang of the COT in its first full season of use in NASCAR:
* He went winless in 2008, the first time he has failed to win two races, let alone one, in a season since his rookie campaign in Sprint Cup in 1993.
* Sure, he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but unlike the way he finished runner-up in 2007, was a non-entity in the way the Chase played out last season, finishing a dismal seventh, the fifth-worst season finish in his 16-year Cup career.
* Critics increasingly said Gordon was over the hill at 38, that he might not ever win another Cup race again. Others said his second marriage and the birth of his first child may have taken away some of Gordon's fine edge, making him too tentative and less willing to take chances.
Gordon dismisses that kind of talk. He adamantly decrees that the only person to blame is himself. To fix the situation, he's taken that blame, accepted it and is doing all he can to change his fortune and fate with the new car, even if it's one step at a time rather than by big leaps and bounds.
"When you've been in the sport as long as I have it's harder to adapt to changes," Gordon said. "The longer you're in it the harder it is to adapt to changes so some of it is me adjusting my driving. I can't change how I drive but I can make some small adjustments."
Will continuing to make small adjustments lead to a big rebound for Gordon in 2009? We'll start to learn the answer to that in next Sunday's 51st running of the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
"Nothing is driving me more than the desire to win and the fact that we didn't win last year," Gordon said.
It's been tough with all the self-doubt for Gordon, all the criticism he faced and the frustration he endured over 36 races, but Gordon has put 2008 behind him and is looking forward to this season with a new energy and spirit. He dismisses talk that retirement is in his near-future or that he's lost some of his sharpness.
"This has only fired me up even more," Gordon said. "I may stick around for another 5, maybe 10 years … okay, maybe not 10 (he said with a laugh)."
Gordon believes that he has gotten much closer to mastering the new car, and that the proof of that will be improved results by the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet Impala in the COT's second season.
"Last year was a big deal, it's behind us and we learned from it," Gordon said. "We grow from it and make ourselves better and try to make sure it doesn't happen this year."
Still, his millions of loyal fans want to know whether Gordon will suffer through another winless, mediocre season in 2009.
"I don't think it's going to (be that way again)," Gordon said. "I think we're a stronger, better team. We're taking that experience and we're making the most of it. This is a humbling sport and last year was a humbling year for us and made us realize just how bad we want to win and how bad we don't want to lose and I think we can show that this year."
But don't take his word for it. Several competitors scoff at the notion that Gordon is washed up or has forgotten how to win or is playing it far too safe on the race track.
"Jeff Gordon hasn't lost a thing, I can assure you that," fellow competitor Tony Stewart says. "He's still a threat to lead every lap, win every race and add more Sprint Cup championships to the four he already has."
Added Hendrick Motorsports teammate and three-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, "Jeff is still one of the best drivers out there. No, I don't think he has lost a thing. He can still drive circles around most everyone out there in that garage."
Longtime rival Dale Earnhardt Jr., who became Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports last season, can relate to the season Gordon had. While Earnhardt did win one race last season – breaking a 76-race winless streak – he also struggled in adapting to the new car at times and ultimately finished last in the 12-man Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"Jeff didn't just forget how to drive," Earnhardt said. "It just shows you how hard this new car is if a guy like him has problems driving it. Some guys have gotten used to the new car sooner than others, but I think he's finally gotten comfortable with it and I think you'll see him back to the old Jeff everyone knows this season."
While Gordon admits he was frustrated far too often last season, it didn't affect his sense of humor. When asked if Earnhardt's often-relentless fans cut him a break last season because the two drivers were now teammates, Gordon's face quickly broke into a smile.
"It only lightened up because I wasn't winning," he laughed. "I hope I go back to winning and the boos get loud as can be because that's one of my favorite things to hear."