Feature Story

Catching Stride

By Kyle Mielke

There were a lot of unanswered questions for Jeff Gordon entering the 2009 season. Undoubtedly, 2008 was a rough year for Gordon and his race team. Despite finishing in the top-10 in the series points standings and qualifying for the Chase for the Championship, Gordon failed to score a victory and was not a serious threat for the championship. That's simply not good enough for Gordon or his fans.

Gordon's early success in 2009 is directly attributed to his 2008 slump year. "The 2008 season was very disappointing," Gordon said. "Probably the biggest motivation we could have ever had." Toward the end of 2008, Gordon was showing signs of improvement as he earned 7 top-10's in the final 10 races. "We just went to work," he said. "I'm so proud of crew chief Steve Letarte. He got beat up so bad by a lot of people. It's tough being the crew chief of that DuPont Chevrolet. There's a lot of pressure and expectation."

Letarte's work during the off-season keyed the early turnaround. He restructured his engineering group and worked on the cars, on the setups, and listened to the driver's feedback. Also, Gordon himself has gone to work by getting himself into better shape, which has helped his performance on the track.

Thus far, the strong performances at the outset of the season have yet to yield a victory. Three top-10's in the first four events have put the #24 team in charge of the points standings -- a position Gordon has not been in since October 2007. Although leading the points is relatively meaningless until the Chase begins, it builds confidence within the team. "I'm a big believer that you got to walk before you can run," he said. "I think we've turned the corner. This team has really shown consistently in all four races this year that we're a team that can battle up front and for the win. I believe we keep doing that, we're going to win races."

Despite the strong start, Gordon feels the best may be yet to come. "We haven't really reached our full potential yet," he said. "We're experimenting with things that the guys worked hard on over the off-season... We can only make it better." Those are words that his fans love to hear and his competitors hate. One thing is certain: If Gordon is given the right equipment, he is the most dangerous driver in NASCAR.

Gordon and Letarte are answering the questions about their commitment level. They are hungry, talented, and have what it takes to win races and contend for the championship. With short track season upon us, opportunities for victories abound. Beware: Jeff Gordon is back.

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