Gordon needs to prove his turnaround is here

Updated: June 29, 2006, 4:07 PM ET
By Rusty Wallace | Special to ESPN.com

I think we're still in a wait-and-see mode with Jeff Gordon, even though his victory at Infineon Raceway was impressive.

Terry Labonte
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTerry Labonte helped make the right calls to finish third on Sunday.

He's not all the way back yet, but he and his team did everything right. They had good pit stops. Gordon drove like the old Jeff Gordon. He looked like he's back in championship form. But he needs to be able to maintain that.

One thing in his favor is that he announced he is engaged. To me, getting married always has a calming effect on a driver. It takes away the distractions outside of driving.

If there was any distraction outside of driving.

He certainly got really mad at me for saying he needed to spend less time on vacation and keep his eye on the ball. He's my friend and we get along really well, so maybe I jarred him loose, I don't know -- it has an effect. Still, him being in love again and getting married is a positive thing.

At least he has one thing secured in his mind, and that's his personal life. If you're not feeling good in your brain, it definitely affects the way you drive.

I think he'll be better this year for it, and getting the win helps, too. I went through it in my career; when you're not winning it really drags you down.

Now he's got to ride that high and keep his momentum.

Another veteran had an impressive run in Sonoma: Terry Labonte is a good road racer and he had a good car, and anybody will tell you Infineon is all about track position.

Labonte and crew chief Philippe Lopez took a gamble on fuel and got enough cautions to really stretch it out at the end of the race. You could see they had a good car, and they made a crucial call on track position.

Good drivers don't forget how to drive, and Labonte is certainly a good one. We're the same age, and I know I feel like I could still get out there and win, so it's no different for him.

Moving from one of Nextel Cup's great veterans to the Busch Series, a lot of Cup regulars made the long trip from the Busch race in Wisconsin to the Cup race in California on Saturday night or Sunday morning.

If you're a Busch team owner like I am, you don't want to see those big stars with their Cup-backed race teams show up at a Busch race. You want your driver -- like my son Steven -- to get his chance.

On the other hand, the Cup guys set the mark for how good you need to get to move up.

It is tough to fly across the country like that, and I'm always surprised by how many do it.

Next year, when the Car of Tomorrow comes, NASCAR's new frame for Cup racing -- and there's a big difference between the Cup cars and the Busch cars -- I'm not sure we'll see as many Cup drivers racing in Busch. I can't see how running the Busch Series will help the Cup guys at all, because the cars will be totally -- even radically -- different.

Running the Busch Series could really mess up a Sunday Cup run because the cars will be so different.

Someone who looked radically different at Sonoma this year over last year was Carl Edwards. He had a nice showing at Infineon on Sunday, finishing sixth, and he credited road ace Boris Said for his help.

The most important thing a driver has to do to be competitive on a road course is to stay on the course. That sounds simple enough, but if you get wild and get off course you can tear up a transmission or a suspension and end your day quickly.

It's very easy to wheel-hop a car, get the rear end turned around and get off the course. Boris Said is one of the best road-course drivers around -- in fact, he's the guy I picked to teach my son to get him ready for next season when the Busch Series has some road racing in Mexico.

Boris can drive on a road course and he can certainly teach it, too. It showed with Edwards, who improved 32 spots over last season.

Speaking of Said, something was "said" to him that you can't say in polite company by a driver who usually has a good day on a road course; instead, this driver struggled, and he was mad at Said to boot.

Tony Stewart has had a run of bad luck, but there's nothing wrong with him other than he certainly loses his temper too easily. He's Tony. Everything was OK until Stewart stuck his nose in where there wasn't room for it alongside Said, and then Stewart decided to stick that left arm out and extend the middle finger.

I have a problem with that. I love Tony Stewart and I think he's a great guy, but I don't care much for that disrespect. He's struggling with his temper, but he needs to do better.

Most drivers will put up with a lot and can handle getting beat up and banged on around the track, but when that left arm comes out the window and you get a gesture ... well, that's always one where I would go berserk. I won't tolerate the disrespect. I take it personally. He's just showing his ass there and he needs to cut it out.

So it's back to Daytona for the Pepsi 400, and I expect most of the usual drivers to be good on Saturday.

Stewart and the Penske cars of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch ran well in February; Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. can be strong, too.

Jimmie Johnson is the driver to beat because of how good he's been at all the speedway races.

So the Hendrick teammates (Gordon and Johnson) and the Penske teammates have to be looked at as contenders. Throw in Stewart and Earnhardt, and after that it's hard to see someone else breaking through. Of course, Daytona is always anybody's game, so we'll see.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at rustywallace.com.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at rustywallace.com.

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