Birth of daughter a nice consolation prize for Gordon
Winning a Nextel Cup championship would have been a capper to a great year for Jeff Gordon, but it wasn't to be, writes David Newton.
Gordon's biggest mistake was being content with a solid average, believing that Johnson's more aggressive style eventually would lead to a mistake and give him the title."I've always known it was possible for somebody to be aggressive like Jimmie and win races," Gordon said. "You've got to push the limit to lead a lap and win the races that way. What makes those guys so good is they are able to push the limit and not make mistakes. "What they did this year was incredible." What Gordon did also was nothing short of incredible. Team owner Rick Hendrick let him know that as the two embraced on pit road. "Oh, man, congratulations, buddy," Hendrick said before moving on to congratulate Johnson. To which Gordon responded, "One of these days, I'm going to give you another one." Gordon did all he could Sunday to make that happen. He spent much of the race a spot or two ahead of Johnson, just as he did most of the season. He opted for two tires during a pit stop under caution, jumping from 13th and one spot ahead of Johnson to third and 11 spots ahead and cutting the points differential to 41 in real-time scoring. But Gordon never led a lap and never could get Johnson far enough out of his rearview mirror to make a difference. "Looking back on it, we should have gotten more aggressive," Gordon said. "Tonight was one of the most aggressive setups we've had and one of the best cars we've had in a while.
-- Jeff Gordon
"We had an incredible race car. And we put up the best fight we know how to. I hate we were this far behind coming into this race as we were."Although seven-time champion Richard Petty believes losing this title will take the wind out of Gordon's sails, Hendrick never has seen his driver as competitive -- or as happy. "He's happier in his life as a whole than I've ever seen him since I've known him," he said. That doesn't mean losing this one didn't hurt. Gordon had no doubt this was his year until Johnson went on one of the best rolls in NASCAR history since Gordon won four straight en route to the 1998 title. "I've never been in this position," Gordon said. "All the other years, when we've had the year we had like this year, we've been the ones to go out there and put the pressure on the competition. It's a great learning experience for us. We're not done yet."
Gordon didn't lose the championship. Johnson won it.And Gordon accepted that with class and dignity. He pulled beside Johnson on the cool-down lap to offer congratulations. He playfully waved his fist at Johnson as JJ did a burnout that drowned out Gordon's postrace interview. "He's been doing it for the last couple of years, I guess," Gordon said of being upstaged. One day, Ella undoubtedly will hear from others how well her daddy handled this night. She will hear how he went to Victory Lane to celebrate with his teammate, how he and Johnson celebrated late into the evening. One day, Gordon hopes to tell Ella how he won a fifth, maybe sixth and seventh title. "Every time you win a race, every time you win a championship, you think it could be the last," said Gordon, 36. "We've heard Mark Martin say that forever. I know what he means. You work so hard, and you just really never know when it's going to happen again. "That for me is the toughest part of this year. I'm not getting any younger. I put up as good a numbers as I know how to put up, and it wasn't enough. That's tough to handle as a competitor."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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