Monday, February 8, 2010
JEFF GORDON JUST GETTING HIS SECOND WIND BEFORE 40
Before he became a father two years ago, Jeff Gordon said there would be no way he'd still be racing at the age of 40.
"I probably did say that," Gordon said recently, laughing with acknowledgment. "Things change, life changes. You have kids and that changes things."
Now that he's 38 and with a second child on the way (due in early August), Gordon's perspective has indeed changed significantly. Instead of hanging around for just one more year and then calling it quits, he's extending his racing timeline and horizon considerably.
"There was a time I thought 2010 would be my last year," Gordon said. "I've always said that it's not for me to pick and choose because it takes – you have to be healthy, competitive, you know. If you have those two things, then you're going to hopefully enjoy what you're doing. Those three components are what's going to keep me in the sport until that day or season comes to an end. I don't want to put a date on it."
Yet at the same time, Gordon kind of has an idea – revised, as it were. But even that comes with a similar caveat to not driving past 40.
"I don't think I'm not going to be driving at 50 – but I don't want to say that's definite," Gordon said. "I want to keep driving as long as I'm healthy and competitive and as long as Rick (team owner Rick Hendrick) wants to put me in the car."
Much of Gordon's change of mind and heart is due to the incredible performance of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, who is racing at 50 better most of his peers are doing at 25, 30 and even 35 years of age. Martin won five races last year and was runner-up for the fifth time in his career (still without a Cup championship) – with Gordon close behind in third place.
"Mark to me, has always been a huge inspiration," Gordon said. "I've always looked at him in awe at the physical shape he keeps himself in. He's been doing that for a long time. It's not like it all just started.
"I think Mark, if you asked him 10 or 12 years ago, he'd have said he wasn't going to race at 50, and yet here he is."
And here is Gordon, who turns 39 on August 1.
Just as he's done each of the last eight years, Gordon is once again back in the hunt for his fifth career Cup championship. He's tied for third for most championships with teammate Jimmie Johnson, who has won the last four in a row, and behind Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, who both won seven Cup titles in their respective careers.
That Johnson has been so successful is a dual-edged sword for Gordon. On the one hand, he's happy for his teammate, particularly since Gordon is part-owner of Johnson's No. 48 team along with Rick Hendrick.
But on the other hand, Gordon, like every other competitor out there, would like to see himself in victory lane more often – and Johnson less so.
"You're frustrated," Gordon said. "You're like, you know what, I'm tired of seeing those guys win and being up there on the stage. I remember that happened when I came along with Earnhardt. Then it happened with me. Now it's happened with Jimmie. That's just competition."
And with each passing year that goes by without the driver of the No. 24 claiming Cup title No. 5, the sense of urgency increases. That, despite Gordon saying two years ago, after Johnson had won his second straight title, that he doubted if he'd ever tie Petty and Earnhardt's mark, let alone win a fifth championship.
"And I'm okay with that," Gordon said at the time.
But with his new-found desire to stretch his Cup career as long as he can, Gordon is definitely reinvigorated to not only win that fifth title and pull closer to Petty and Earnhardt's shared mark, but also to be the guy that knocks Johnson off his throne.
"Heck yeah, you're darn right," Gordon said. "I don't have a whole lot of years left in me. I don't know how many exactly that is. But I'm certainly tapering down toward the latter side of my career. And so those years are winding down, those opportunities are winding down. I want to take full advantage of the fact that we've got the best organization out there. I've got a great team. We're still capable of winning championships. I want to take full advantage of it."
Had the Chase for the Sprint Cup format not been put into place in 2004, Gordon likely would have had two more championships under his belt by now. There's nothing Gordon can do to change it, so he can only forge ahead and do what he can do.
"I would love to get back and win – see, I don't look at it as five (championships)," Gordon said. "I look at it as one. I've never won a Sprint Cup. The sport has changed in how you race for a championship since how that's come along. It's also motivation. I don't like a points system change or a car change to dictate whether or not, you know, we can win championships. I feel like, you know, all the racing I've done, I've been able to win in a lot of different types of cars and tracks. I want to keep that going."
And that starts with the season-opening Daytona 500 this Sunday. Gordon is in pursuit of his fourth career win in the Great American Race, having previously reached victory lane in 1997, 1999 and most recently, 2005.
Since then, however, Gordon's last four finishes in the 500 have been less than inspiring: 26th in 2006, 10th in 2007, 39th in 2008 and 13th in last year's race.
"Well, you know, the Daytona 500 is the Daytona 500," Gordon said. "There's not a guy out there that doesn't want to win it, doesn't think they can win it. At this point in the season every year, everybody feels like they've got what it takes, not only to win this race but to win the championship.
"Daytona is special. You know, you analyze every lap more here than you do probably any other race because there's so much riding on the line. There's so much buildup and anticipation getting to this event. If you win one race all year, this is the one you want to win."
Winning, unfortunately, has been few and far between for Gordon of late. After six wins in 2007, the most wins in a single season that he's had since 2001, Gordon has just one win in his last 77 Cup starts: after being shut out totally of victory lane in 2008, he won just one race last season, at Texas.
"It's been frustrating, for sure," Gordon said. "We pride ourselves with the No. 24 Chevrolet and here at Hendrick that we've won a lot of races over the years. And we also know that our teammates are winning races. And if we're really going to be a factor in the championship, we have to win more races.
"I was so excited the way we started off last season, we were competitive everywhere we went, we won Texas and maintained that for a few more races, but then we either lost what we had or the competition caught up with us. This year, I hope we can reverse that, that we can ramp up as the season goes on and we get better and we put ourselves in position to win more races. I certainly think we have that capability still in us, the fire's still there, the desire, the tools we need and the resources."
For all the critics who have espoused that Gordon has lost some of his edge since marrying for a second time and then becoming a father for the first time, Gordon would beg to differ with that.
"Winning, especially as little as we've been doing lately, it never gets old," he said. "You never know when that next win's gonna come. And experiencing victory is still one of the greatest thrills you'll have ever have. It's because of the hard work and how difficult it is to win. So I never take that for granted. And certainly the last couple years have been great, humbling experiences for our team to motivate ourselves even more to get back into winning fashion."
(Photos: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Jerry Bonkowski at Monday, February 08, 2010