Gordon's skid can't last forever
He's one of the best in NASCAR history, but four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon hasn't won since Oct. 13, 2007. Just when will this losing streak end?
Nobody expects Jeff Gordon to go winless again this year.
But then, nobody expected him to go winless last year.
These things can set in, for long periods, no matter the driver.
When Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, he broke a 59-race losing streak on the Cup tour and proclaimed that he was off toward an eighth championship. He didn't win again that year.
When Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 of 1979, he broke a losing streak that had persisted all of 1978. And after his landmark 200th victory in 1984, he never won again, through eight more seasons.
"There's no question in my mind Jeff Gordon will win races this coming year," says Jeff Burton, who knows a thing or two about doldrums, having suffered through a winless streak that lasted through all of 2002 and '03 and deep into '04. "But all has got to be right."
In the combination of car and setup tailored to the driver, "What's right for Jimmie Johnson [Gordon's teammate and protégé] doesn't mean that's the definition of what's right for Jeff Gordon," Burton says.
His next thought is spot-on, trite as it might seem until you explore it: "That team's got to find what's right for Jeff Gordon because he's the guy holding the wheel."
More precisely, Gordon is the guy turning the wheel. And the key might lie in just exactly how he turns it.
Diagnostics might be in order. So bring in two types of diagnosticians: from up close, Gordon's own Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Johnson, and for outside perspective, rival team owner Jack Roush.
"He doesn't like a loose race car," Roush says of Gordon. "And this car [NASCAR's so-called 'new car'] has to be pretty darn loose to have speed in it."
By the nature of its design and structure, "This car is always, always tight," Johnson says.
That is, it pushes -- it doesn't want to turn through the corners.
"Once you finally get it loose enough to turn, the thing is definitely sideways and you can't control it," Johnson says.
"You get it to where it's tight enough going in, so it's not jumping out from underneath you, it doesn't want to turn in the middle," Roush says.
Gordon denies that the new car -- formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow and now called the Car of Today -- is the biggest challenge he has faced in his career.
"Race cars are race cars," he says. "I would say the competition is the toughest challenge we've ever had, more so than the car."
OK, let's go there. The guys who've beaten Gordon lately have high tolerance for loose cars.
"Within my own field of drivers," Roush says, "the drivers who have the preference for the looser cars have been the ones who have stood supreme. The ones who have an aversion have struggled."
And Johnson, who shares the same building and many of the same personnel at Hendrick with Gordon, roared out of the doldrums late this past season to win a third consecutive Sprint Cup championship, while Gordon went winless for the first season since his rookie year, 1993.
With Johnson's background in off-road racing, "I don't have the strongest steering wheel," he says -- driverspeak for not relying mostly on the wheel itself to turn the car. "I'm willing to turn the car with my right foot [throttle control]."
A truism as solid today as it was on the beach course at Daytona is this: The harder and sooner a driver tries to turn a loose car, the more drastically the rear end kicks out, throwing the car sideways if not looping the car around.
And Gordon's driving style has long been developed and cemented.
"With his background all those years in sprint cars and midgets, and throwing it sideways, he really yanks on the steering wheel early [entering turns]," Johnson says. "That's kind of been the underlying problem to get sorted out for him. It has been frustrating for everybody here [at Hendrick Motorsports]."
But the other truism, as Burton points out, is that you can't change a driver to fit the car. You have to tailor the car to fit the driver's style.
So Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, is the key operative here -- the chess player who must think in combinations of 12 or 14 moves to get the car balanced for Gordon.
Gordon was struggling when Letarte took over as his crew chief in 2006. One of the first things Letarte did was go to Atlanta for a test that amounted to radical exploratory surgery on the old-style cars, to get them right for Gordon.
In 2007, Gordon won six races and finished second to Johnson in the Chase. But that year, the Car of Tomorrow was limited to tracks 1 mile or shorter and road courses. When the new car was made mandatory for all tracks last year, the frustration began.
Now that NASCAR has eliminated testing on tracks where NASCAR races are run, Letarte can't perform his major surgery. But he doesn't think that matters this time.
"I don't think [the difficulty] is as obvious as what it was" with the old car, Letarte says. "We just haven't been able to key in on what he needs yet. When we key in on that, we're going to be successful."
But Roush, an engineer by training, wishes them well with the laws of physics -- especially considering NASCAR's rigidity on the rules for the new car.
"There's an opportunity to fix that [the necessary 'loose-in' condition] with the Car of Today -- with tweaks in the sides of the spoiler and tweaks in the shapes of the fenders," Roush says. But, "I don't know that they want to."
Indeed, NASCAR hasn't budged on the rules this year.
So inevitably, Roush reckons, "If the first thing you do is tighten the car up and say, 'Now we'll go try to make it fast,' you've probably created a scenario for yourself where the car won't have the speed. I'm not being critical of Jeff, but I think that's what's going on."
Somehow, Johnson expects, they'll figure it out.
"Jeff is one of the best at dealing with frustrations," Johnson says. "And Stevie has the right temperament to handle all that stuff."
"I didn't even think about [the winless season] all this offseason," Gordon says. "Honestly, I didn't dwell on it. It didn't impact me that much."
In restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega, Gordon has been fine -- he just hasn't won the aero shuffles and the crapshoots lately -- so, "I think our package will be fine at Daytona," he says of the upcoming 500 on Feb. 15.
But remember Earnhardt and Petty, both of whom won Daytona 500s to break losing streaks, then slipped right back into the doldrums again.
"Just because you're Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon," Burton says, "doesn't mean you're going to go to the racetrack and win races."
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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