By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
The scene going into Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway is almost like back in the day, old-school NASCAR -- with Jeff Gordon once again at the head of the class.
Think about it: Gordon is looking as if he's back at the top of his game. He's leading the Sprint Cup standings, has two runner-up finishes, a sixth and a 13th in the first four races, and suddenly has people talking once again about Gordon potentially winning that heretofore elusive fifth Cup championship this season.
Sure, there are 32 races still left, but watching the No. 24 car in the first four races has been like watching a flashback of Gordon in his prime.
Even Gordon sees flashes of his old brilliance.
"It is just being competitive," he said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. "It is just when you get out there on the track and you can push the car really hard, it responds, (and) the lap times are there as well. When that happens, the whole team just continues to get better and better and better each and every lap. Each day. Each weekend and each race. It has brought a lot of the fun back."
For those naysayers who quickly point out that even with all his success thus far in 2009, Gordon still hasn't won a race since October 2007, I have just three words for you:
It's coming ... soon.
In fact, don't be surprised if Gordon ends up in victory lane Sunday at Bristol, where he has five career wins, or next Sunday at Martinsville, where he is even better with seven triumphs.
Frankly, Gordon is a victory waiting to happen. And after that, multiple wins are sure to follow.
I'm almost tempted to say Gordon, who is off to one of his best starts in a long time, might match or even top the six wins he earned in 2007 (when he finished second to teammate Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship) and 2001 (when he won his fourth and last Cup title).
"We have had four great races already this year, had a nice off week, and I've been excited about coming to Bristol for a while," Gordon said. "I've always liked this racetrack. ... I am really proud of Steve (Letarte, crew chief), our engineers and all the guys on the DuPont Chevrolet because they have been making such great progress with the setups. I just love the direction they are going in, and already today we have seen some real speed in the car. It has me optimistic for the whole weekend."
For all the naysayers and critics who loudly proclaimed last season that Gordon was washed up, that he had lost his edge, that he wasn't motivated any longer and was simply going through the motions, you might want to give those statements some serious second thought.
If anything, it almost appears as if Gordon is taking great pleasure in proving all his haters wrong. He's walking, talking, driving and acting 10 years younger. He's as motivated as I've seen him this decade. He's also proving everyone wrong: Letarte is really a very good crew chief who simply had a very bad season last year.
"Just talking to Steve, we had some real heart-to-hearts last year about where we stood with the team, with our setups, with our race cars, what we needed to do, each of us, what we thought of the team," Gordon said. "We just shared a lot of those conversations as well as Rick Hendrick, Ken Howes, Doug Duchardt, our director of competition -- a lot of conversations about what are we missing, where are we off, what are our strong suits. To me it was just about really making some fairly significant changes. The first step in that was how we went about the engineering at the race track and bringing two engineers. I think that was the first step to turn the corner for us.
"I think Steve has always done a fantastic job. It is just about having the tools and the confidence. And I didn't have the confidence in the car that I need to."
One of the more significant changes for Gordon has not been inside the race car, but outside of it. Unbeknownst to many, he's been saddled with a bad back the last few years that has hampered his ability at times.
"Even on our good days, I'll walk away from the track really in a lot of pain," Gordon said.
After last season, Gordon decided that instead of continuing to endure pain, he was going to do something about it.
"It is really my wife that I owe the credit to," Gordon said. "I have been telling her I wanted to put some time on my calendar to work out and go to the gym. She said, 'You're wasting your time. You're not going to do it. You're not going to be committed. The only way you are going to do it is get with a trainer.'
"I finally bit the bullet and I did it and this guy is kicking my butt. I mean, I don't know why I keep going back, but I feel the best I have felt in a long time. I am following that up with some back specialists and also an individual here at the track that is stretching me.
"The combination of those things has made me a whole new person. When I come to the race track, I am ready to go. I feel good, I feel stronger. I can't wait to get in this race because I just feel that it is a physical race and I feel like I am in the best shape that I have been in in a long, long time."
As Gordon has felt better, so, too, has his team. Letarte has built a fleet of cars tailor-made to Gordon's unique driving style, the crew members on the No. 24 are performing at their highest level since at least 2007, and a positive, winning attitude -- combined with his workouts -- has Gordon back to his old self.
"I've been doing more things this year than I ever have, and just physically I feel so much better as well," Gordon said. "I feel better prepared and stronger, my muscles are stretched and looser and I'm just doing a lot more from my aspect, from a driver's standpoint. Then the team has been backing it up with great race cars."
So, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, now you know the rest of the story on Gordon's sudden resurgence.
While it might not have everything to do with his comeback, Gordon has found a way to transfer the discomfort in his back into being a pain in the butt to his fellow drivers on the racetrack.