Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Jeff Gordon is America's greatest active racer

by Gordon Kirby
To the surprise of many Jeff Gordon was the man to beat through the first quarter of NASCAR's marathon 36-race Sprint Cup championship. Gordon has been consistently the most competitive driver over the first three months of the new season and enjoyed a healthy championship lead until getting involved in a multi-car wreck early in the race at Talladega the weekend before last. As a result Gordon lost the point lead to Kurt Busch who has been fast on occasion but nothing like as consistent as Gordon.

But at Richmond last Saturday night Gordon was able to retake the point lead by finishing eighth so that he currently leads Busch by ten points. Richmond winner Kyle Busch now is fifth in points behind Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin with defending champion Jimmie Johnson hanging in there in sixth place.

It will be interesting to see how Gordon's pursuit of his fifth Cup title goes. Whatever happens it's clear he is the most accomplished driver racing in the United States today. The 37-year old Gordon, married for the second time and a new father, too, is beginning to earn himself a place in NASCAR's pantheon in company with the greatest stock car drivers. He is NASCAR's leading active driver with four championships and 82 wins to his credit but hasn't won a championship since 2001 and for the first time in fifteen years he failed in 2008 to win a single race.

Gordon broke a 47-race victory drought--the longest of his career--on the fearsome Texas Motor Speedway on the first weekend in April. It was Gordon's 82nd win, one short of tying Cale Yarborough for fifth place on NASCAR's all-time winners list and two short of tying Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third behind Richard Petty (with 200 wins) and David Pearson (105).

In the past few years teammate Jimmie Johnson has outperformed Gordon and Jeff freely admits he had become a little too set in his ways and had a difficult time adapting to NASCAR's new CoT Cup car, introduced in 2007. Over the last two seasons many of Gordon's fans protested that the fault lay with Jeff's crew chief Steve Letarte and more than a few of them demanded that Hendrick fire Letarte.

"The team's been solid since 2007," Gordon remarked. "They were just as solid last year. It's just we weren't fast, but now we've got the cars working really well and everything is starting to gel and click together.

"It just takes hard work and good communication," Gordon continued. "While me and Steve and the team got criticized last year we just really didn't have the right combination and set-ups with the new car. It took a little while to get a better understanding of this car, how I can drive it and how we can set it up with my driving style to go fast. But while we weren't having success we were paying attention to what was going on around us with our teammates as well as our competitors."

Gordon was much encouraged by his performance in last year's final ten races.

"A lot of people didn't recognize that we started to show a lot of progress over those final ten races and then we took that into the off-season and improved the set-ups and the cars. Steve and the engineers looked at the simulations and the seven-post results and made everything better.

"As frustrating and discouraging as it was at times last year it only made you realize how much you want to win and how bad you want it. It just stinks to not win or get beat like we did last year and not be competitive. Those last ten races certainly were a step in the right direction but this year has been amazing. To be as close to winning as we've been at many races and to be consistently solid week-in and week-out, it feels great."

Crew chief Letarte says NASCAR's ban on winter testing allowed Gordon's team to take some time off and come back to Hendrick's shop with a fresh approach.

"We made a lot of small changes," Letarte commented. "In the off-season we all went our separate ways, took a little time off and kind of looked in the mirror and decided what we needed to do better as a group and as individuals. We have a very focused group of guys and a very focused driver and so far this year it's been good. I'm sure there will be times when we struggle, but I think after what we went through last year we're ready for the bad weekends when they come."

Adds Gordon: "I think going through a year like we went through last year it really makes you understand how bad you don't like losing and how bad you want to win and how passionate you are for the sport. I think my passion level is probably greater today than it's ever been."

Gordon says he finds it hard to believe he's won so many races and is ranked near the top of NASCAR's all-time winners list.

"To be in the company of guys like Cale and Darrell (Waltrip) and Bobby Allison, that's pretty incredible in itself. Being that close to those guys and having the year we're having I think we're capable of getting a few more wins, so that would be pretty cool to pull off.

"To me, every year is about winning races and championships and to me at this point, winning five or however many championships isn't really going to change my legacy. I want that legacy to be that I was a hard-charging driver who went out there and got the job done as good as anybody."

Gordon gives his mother and father full credit for providing the support to launch his career and achieve so much early in life.

"The number one reason for my success is I started very young. My parents got me into a quarter midget at five and a half years old and then they recognized I had something special behind the wheel and I was fortunate enough that they were able to help me pursue that. I drove a sprint car when I was thirteen years old and that's something that took me about ten years ahead of most of the guys I was racing against.

"So I got some valuable experience at a young age and that got me to the Cup series at a young age. People believed in what I was doing and luckily, I was able to back it up enough times to build on that momentum.

"When I was younger, I might have had more energy and I might've wanted to drive everything that had wheels on it, but it was a different kind of passion. Today, I just know how much I really enjoy being a part of the sport and how important is to me and my life and how it's played such a crucial role in my life. All the memories I have throughout my life have been in racing and I'm still very passionate about it.

"I wrecked more cars my rookie year than anybody," Jeff adds. "But at this stage of my career I'm way more consistent because I'm less aggressive for the majority of the race. I pick my spots and when I pick them right and the car is there and the team has the kind of pit stops that we had in Texas, it pays off."

Gordon freely admits he has learned a lesson from teammate Johnson about properly preparing for the Chase for the Cup over the season's final ten races.

"What we're really all doing is trying to put ourselves in position to win the championship," Jeff remarked. "In order to do that not only do you want to be leading the points going into those final ten races, you want to have won the most races, or at least as many as anybody else. You want to show you can win and be good at those ten tracks.

"That's what I think is crucial that a lot of people are missing about Jimmie and the #48 team. That's what they do so well. They don't have to be the best through the first twenty-six races but when it comes down to those final ten they are really strong on those tracks. And that's what made winning at Texas so important for us because that was a track where we were weak. All of us have weaknesses and it's just finding those weaknesses and trying to utilize those to your advantage."

Commented crew chief Letarte: "It was huge to win at a place we've never won at. It was a gigantic relief. That place has really been an Achilles Heel for us. Jeff really struggles to get the feeling there and we have very little confidence to put a set-up on the car that we believe is fast. So you kind of spiral and bounce off one another.

"But the whole weekend went real well. We weren't that good on Saturday but the guys worked really hard and the engineers put their heads together and we made some good changes for Sunday. Jeff drove a great race and the pit crew really came through at the end and gave us track position. It was a great relief to win like we did with a fast race car and put in a team effort."

Letarte says team owner Rick Hendrick is the key to the success achieved by Gordon and the team as a whole.

"Our owner is quite a leader," Letarte remarks. "He's very successful in business, very successful on and off the track. His strength is leadership and he does a very good job in raising us as a family and teaching us how to race. But it's really about how to treat people, how to treat your employees. That's really what it comes down to.

"You've got to have great employees, great team members and that's definitely our strength at Hendrick Motorsports. It's always been about our people. The advantage of Hendrick Motorsports has always been our depth.

"It's very hard when you have four superstars to work as well together as they do. It's amazing and that comes from the boss. It's a mindset. It's not something we're forced to do, or something we're expected to do. We just do it. That's how our company works. Chad (Knaus) and I take great pride in how well we work together, in what kind of friendship we have and what kind of leadership we give to our teams."

Gordon has been criticized for not being passionate enough or for being too professional and commercially-minded. He grins quietly at those kind of suggestions.

"I think you get a lot of that passion if you listen on the audio scanners during the races," he says. "You can't hold back at those moments because the intensity is there and the adrenaline is flowing.

"But when the camera comes on after the race, or during the race if you have a problem, there's a certain respect level you have to have for the viewing audience, your sponsors and the professionalism of the sport. Sometimes that gets in the way of showing your true feelings. That's unfortunate but we see it more and more in all major league sports because we are so dependent on our corporate sponsorship.

"I'm not going to apologize for it because it's just the way things are. But I'm also highly-entertained by and love the guys who are willing to jump out there and not let that affect them. We used to see Tony (Stewart) do it. We used to see Kurt Busch do it and we still see Kyle do it sometimes. We've seen guys pull that off throughout the years but unfortunately we see less and less of it.

"Is it taking away from the entertainment? A little bit. But I think there's a way to go about it and still be passionate about what were doing. And the TV people and analysts are doing a great job of pulling that out. It's there. It's just finding it."

Jeff says the nature of oval racing and the open setting of NASCAR's garage areas are key items in the many differences between NASCAR and F1.

"In Formula 1 those drivers definitely have a different approach in how they go about it," Gordon observes. "I've been to some F1 races and it's very isolated with a lot of mind games. To me, I think it's a lot of effort spent on something that I don't really think is just worth it.

"In our sport I feel like it's important not to make any enemies. We have such tight racing and we're battling wheel-to-wheel every weekend for thirty-eight weeks out of the year. If you want to go out and run your race and be competitive and be up front for the championship you need to have as few enemies as possible."

Would he ever consider racing in the Indy 500?

First he jokes: "Why would I do that? They're all coming here!"

Then he turns serious.

"I'm passionate about the Indy 500. It's my all-time favorite race because I grew up watching the Indy 500. Had the opportunity come earlier in my career I would possibly be there. It's not that they didn't want me. The opportunity just wasn't there and certainly nobody gave me the chance. But everything went so well for me in stock cars, why would I ever want to do anything different?

"And I have too much respect for those cars, teams and drivers to think that I could go over and just jump in and be competitive. Look at Juan Pablo, Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti. Some of the best open-wheel drivers came to our sport and struggled. Who's to say it wouldn't be the same for a guy like me to go over there to Indy cars?"

Letarte is convinced Gordon has many more NASCAR wins and championships within his grasp.

"I think he has many years left," Letarte remarked. "He has a lot of wins and a lot of accomplishments to be done. I think he's extremely talented. He's also a very smart driver. He doesn't panic. It frustrates you sometimes because you don't have all the details when you're falling back or losing spots. You get frustrated or irritated, but that's where he's so good because he knows what he has and he doesn't push it over the limit. He doesn't tear up race cars.

"My dad taught me a long time ago that you have to have a guy who'll get it to the end and give the crew and crew chief the opportunity to make changes, and Jeff's remarkable at that. He's very good at feedback. He's very good at never settling for an average car. When he's in the last run of a race he gets very, very quiet and does his business, and he's one of the best at it."

After winning in Texas this year the only track on NASCAR's schedule where Gordon has not won is Homestead-Miami, site of the Sprint Cup season-closer in November.

"I think the ultimate would be to go all the way to Homestead with a shot at the championship and win the race and win the championship," Jeff remarked. "I don't think anything could cap off the year we're having right now better than that. If we don't have a chance at the championship and we could end the season by winning at Homestead and checking off those two tracks, Texas and Homestead, that would be pretty cool. But we have a lot of racing to go before we can get to that."

Gordon may not be the fans' favorite, but his record has reached a class of its own among today's active drivers. He's a cool customer with an analytical mind who's interested in all forms of racing and is emerging as the greatest American driver of his era. By the time the final chapters of Gordon's career are written he seems destined to stand with Richard Petty and David Pearson on one of the top rungs of NASCAR's pantheon of greatest drivers.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page