Love Him Or Hate Him, Jeff Gordon Adds Color To NASCAR

By Bill Coats
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JOLIET, IL.- - Standing behind a partition, awaiting his turn during driver introductions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last August, Jeff Gordon knew full well what was coming.

As he rounded the barrier and into view of the massive crowd, Gordon was met by the usual rumble of cheers and jeers, hurrahs and boos. He plastered on a wide smile and, undaunted, waved enthusiastically to those producing the thunderous greeting that echoed throughout the 2.5-mile oval.

Then he went out and smoked the field, winning the Brickyard 400 for the third time. Love him or hate him. There is no middle ground when it comes to Gordon, NASCAR's dominant performer since the mid-1990s. His appearance consistently elicits the most passionate - and varied - response from fans all along the Winston Cup circuit. Maybe he's too polished, far removed from the rough-hewn image of stock-car drivers. Maybe he's blamed for wresting much of the spotlight from the late Dale Earnhardt. Maybe he simply wins too darned much.

"He's good-looking, he wins races, he's got money," driver Michael Waltrip said. "He's a good guy to hate."

"I tried to have a theory on that at one time, but I gave up on it," said Gordon, laughing easily as he relaxed recently in the Hendrick Motorsports hauler. "The only thing I can put my finger on is that people pick and choose who they want to pull for. And if they choose me, they're loyal and there for me. But... as people are maybe cheering Tony Stewart or cheering Dale Earnhardt Jr, it's kind of like they feel like they have to boo me. Which is OK. I take it as a compliment."

Still, Gordon acknowledged that the shrill catcalls used to get under his skin. "I thought I'd done something wrong or something that had caused it," he said. "But I realized that I didn't do anything, other than just win races and championships."

Winning races and championships has been Gordon's domain for a decade, since he joined stock-car racing's star-studded series. He has won 58 races - most among active drivers - and four season titles, behind only seven-time champs Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Gordon, who pilots the rainbow-colored No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, has collected a NASCAR-record $48,055,132.

Put Gordon's success rate into perspective, and an even greater tale of achievement emerges:
-Petty recorded his record 200 wins in 1,177 races, an average of one victory every 5.89 starts. Earnhardt collected 76 victories in 676 races, one every 8.89 events. Gordon's 58 wins have come in 310 races, an average of one victory every 5.34 starts.
-Petty raced full time in the Cup series for 34 years, notching a championship every 4.86 years. Earnhardt earned a title every 3.14 years over a 22-year career. Gordon, in his ninth full season, brings home a championship every 2.25 years.

Heading to Loudon this weekend, Gordon is in solid position to challenge for title No. 5. Although he's still looking for his first win of the year - a career-worse slide that has reached nine months and 25 races - Gordon has 10 top-10 finishes in 17 events and stands fifth in points, 150 behind leader Sterling Marlin, with about half the schedule remaining.

Victories are fun and important, Gordon said, but championships are what he and his team target.

"When you've won a championship, there's nothing like winning another one... especially when you've won four," he said. "We don't have to win the championship to be happy; we have to win the championship to fulfill our goals."

Gordon will turn 31 on August 4. Always in top physical condition, he conceivably could remain behind the wheel for an additional 15 years or so. If he can stretch his career and maintain a comparable level of performance, all the important Winston Cup records could be his.

"I want to (race) as long as I'm healthy, as long as I'm competitive and I have the desire," Gordon said. "It takes a lot out of you to do it at this level, week in and week out."

Can he win seven championships? Or eight? Even more?

"Right now, I'm looking at number 5. And if I get number 5, I'll start looking at six. I don't see how you can look at seven until you've got six," Gordon said. "I just have too much respect for the competitiveness of this sport and the dangers of the sport. I've never been one to look too far ahead."

Gordon was born in southern California, raised in Pittsboro, Indiana- a short drive from Indianapolis Motor Speedway- and was racing BMX bicycles by the time he was 4. With his stepfather, John Bickford, a devout racing fan, guiding him, Gordon was a national quarter-midget champion at age 8. He graduated to go-karts and then hit the Midwest sprint-car circuit as a teenager. He dominated at all levels.

His classmates at Tri-West High in Lizton figured that Gordon was bound for the Indianapolis 500. Instead, he went for cars with fenders.

"When I started pursuing things to go to the next level, (Indy-car racing) wasn't really an option that was available to me," Gordon said. "I feel like in a lot of ways that NASCAR chose me, instead of me choosing NASCAR. Everything just seemed to line up when I went and drove a stock car. And everything's gone so well for me since I got into a stock car."

Gordon teamed with owner Rick Hendrick, with whom he has remained throughout his career. Gordon wound up 14th in the standings in 1993, his first full season; since then, he has finished in the top 10 each year, with titles in 1995, '97, '98 and 2001.

What makes Gordon so good? Some observers say he negotiates tracks differently than other drivers, that he sees things laid out in front of him in a way that others can't. Others cite a highly competitive fire that lies beneath a placid veneer.

"He amazes me every time I see him in the car," Hendrick said. "I thank the good Lord I don't have to race against him. When he started, he had this raw, unbelievable talent."

Although Gordon is no mechanic or engineer, he's a stickler about how the car is prepared and helps iron out flaws. "He's got a tremendous feel for the race car," crew chief Robbie Loomis said. "A lot of drivers feel the things in the car, but they have trouble relating back to the team what they need and what they're feeling. Jeff can relate that to the crew probably as good as anybody in the world."

Gordon generally doesn't take unnecessary chances when he's behind the wheel. But when he senses that the lead is there to be taken, he becomes a bulldog.

"He's down to earth, a normal guy," teammate Jimmie Johnson said. "But that's what he's about- racing the cars. And he's really good at it."

The recent influx of hot-footed young drivers - Johnson, a 26-year-old Winston Cup rookie, is third in points - has boosted the level of competition notably in Winston Cup. The cars are better, too - "racier," in motorsports parlance.

Some veterans have failed to adjust and have tumbled in the standings. Not Gordon.

"The bar just keeps going up," said driver Elliott Sadler. "And that team and him as the driver just keep on not only jumping that bar, but raising it up little by little."

After Gordon rolled up three championships in four seasons, his supremacy began to wane in 1999. He dropped from 13 wins in 1998 to seven and wound up sixth in the standings, his worst showing since '94. The following season was even worse: Gordon won three times in 2000 and slid to ninth in points.

The whispers began: Gordon's supremacy was at an end. He couldn't win without longtime crew chief Ray Evernham after their split-up. Gordon had lost his edge. The joyride was over.

Uh, not so fast. In his second season with Loomis, as well as a cadre of other new team members, Gordon surged to the front again. He won six times, posted a whopping 25 top- 10s, and racked up his fourth championship.

"I can't even describe how rewarding it was," Gordon said. "Gosh, that was just a great, great feeling to see the whole team come together. Just all the things that we had hoped would happen with that team when we went through all the changes, to see it finally come about, it was amazing."

Gordon's quest for championship number 5 is stalled a bit: He's mired in the longest winless streak of his Cup career. Personally, he's going through a very public divorce from his wife, Brooke. He hasn't visited victory lane since Sept. 30 at Kansas Speedway, a span of 25 races.

The dry spell gnaws at Gordon. But he refuses to let it consume him, noting that his season has "been consistent, which is good because we're in the points race."

"We feel like we're doing everything that we need to be doing," Loomis said. "We've got all the confidence in the world in the cars that are being prepared, all the confidence in the world in the driver, all the confidence in the world in the approach we're taking. It's a very fine line between things falling your way and not falling your way. And right now, they're falling just out of our grasp."

Besides, Gordon emphasized, if he never wins another championship- or even another race- he'll still be satisfied with himself and his career.

"Who knows when it's all going to end?" Gordon said. "I mean, it could end today and I would be absolutely thrilled with everything that's happened in my life. Because I never expected it. I just never said, 'This is exactly what's going to happen, this is where I'm going to be, I'm going to do this, this and this.' I never did.

"I just enjoyed the moment and drove as hard as I could and hoped for the best... I appreciate each day that I get to go out there and get in a race car. I want to do it for a long time, and I hope that things continue to go as well as they have. This has been a pretty amazing ride."

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