Archive for Thursday, May 6, 2004

Wonderboy’ grows up: Jeff Gordon is poised in third

May 6, 2004


It was odd Sunday afternoon, hearing Robbie Loomis talk about how Jeff Gordon's faith in his crew chief had helped hold things together when the 24 wasn't measuring up to the lofty standards the team had set for itself over the years.

"Jeff talks to me a lot," Loomis said after Gordon's victory in the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, his second straight Nextel Cup win. "We talked at Bristol. He said that no matter what we came across or how we got criticized, he believed in this race team and what we are doing.

"When you have that kind of confidence from a guy who has won four championships, it gives you confidence to get back to the team and walk through the shop on a bad day and know that we can put our best foot forward."

What makes that seem strange is that anyone who's been around NASCAR for more than a couple of years remembers how different the roles were when Ray Evernham was crew chief for Gordon's team in three of those four championship seasons.

In those days, it almost seemed that the team's radio was merely an extension of Evernham's larynx. He was constantly coaching, cajoling and reassuring Gordon during races, in many of which Gordon clearly had the best car. Gordon's talent was unmistakable, but it almost seemed that without Evernham there to guide him he might not quite be able to focus it into success on the track.

After Evernham left during the 1999 season to become a car owner in his own right, Gordon and Loomis struggled through the 2000 season together.

Gordon had won seven or more races in each of the previous five seasons, but in his first full season after Evernham left he won "only" three times and finished ninth in points, the lowest since he was 14th in his rookie season.

Loomis was the new factor in the equation and took a lot of the heat for that, but Gordon's support never wavered.

After they won six races and a championship together in 2001, Gordon and Loomis seemed like they'd gotten the last laugh on their critics.

But Gordon won three races and finished fourth in the standings in the two seasons since, then started off a bit slowly this year. After a crash at Darlington in the year's fifth race brought a 41st-place finish, Gordon was 13th in the points standings.

He got a ninth at Bristol after the talk with Loomis, and ever since has been pouring on the coal. He feels like he would have won Texas had it not been for a problem that caused power to drain from his car's battery, and might have won Martinsville had he not run over a boulder of concrete that had worked its way out of the track's surface. He then did win at Talladega and added Sunday's California victory. Now, he's third in the points standings and just 27 points behind leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Each week, no matter what's thrown at us, we put it behind us and go to the next week," Gordon said. "Some days we have the best car and the best team out there, but the results don't show it. Today we had the best car when it counted. It's just funny how things work out."

It's funny, too, that Gordon now finds himself talking about the sport's up-and-coming young stars from outside that group. The driver once called "Wonderboy," a nickname that Evernham particularly despised, is now 32 years old in a sport in which drivers have, over history, won more races at 30 and 31 than at any other ages.

As hard as it might be to fathom, Gordon is now almost exactly one year older than the age of the average race winner since the start of the 2003 season. He's also no longer is the unanimous choice as the driver who best represents NASCAR's "new face." That mantle has passed to Earnhardt Jr.

"Honestly, I am enjoying my 30s a lot more than I thought I would because I'm comfortable with myself and the role I'm in," Gordon said. "I don't need to be the guy in the headlines every weekend. I only want to be there if I did something worthy. I like getting attention because I did something good on the track or because we won a race or a championship.

"I don't mind these kids coming along and getting some of the limelight. They are talented. I'm happy for them.

"But I'm also happy when I can pass them and go to Victory Lane."

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