Gordon focused on task at hand
Jeff Gordon admittedly is terrible at multitasking. And that is why he is leading the Cup standings again, running consistently at the brink of winning again, and will break through any Sunday now and probably keep on winning.
Multitasking is of course all the rage -- and the scourge -- of this society.
You read and hear constantly, from The New York Times to CNN to NPR, that psychologists and neuroscientists have determined that multitasking is just a terrible idea -- always inefficient, often dangerous, sometimes disastrous.
But these are not new findings. The Atlantic magazine a while back quoted a Roman slave, Publilius Syrus, in the first century B.C.: "To do two things at once is to do neither."
Gordon and I got onto this topic recently, in a conversation in his hauler, when I was asking a broader, harder question: Are you thinking about it?
"Thinking about it" is the undercurrent term among NASCAR insiders for a driver who has developed such wealth and happiness that he is at or approaching the point of too much to lose, should he be badly injured or killed.
The HANS device, the SAFER barrier, the Car of Tomorrow and cocoon-like seats make catastrophic injury far less likely than even eight years ago, when Dale Earnhardt was killed.
But the very scientists who developed all those devices will tell you that there always looms the possibility of an accident that is unforseen. Gordon's hard hit where there was no SAFER barrier at Las Vegas last year is an example, although the HANS and the COT did their jobs against the bare concrete.
"Thinking about it" was not so much of an issue for early NASCAR drivers, who didn't make enough money, have enough time with their families or have enough opportunities outside racing to ponder life beyond the tracks.
It became more of an issue as drivers such as Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip hit the big money and the big exposure.
Waltrip was thinking about it as early as the mid-1980s when he said, "I want to win as many races as I can, going as slow as I can."
After Earnhardt got upside down at Daytona in 1997, and then got hit horrifically on his roof at Talladega in '98, one of the savviest observers ever in NASCAR told me, "He's thinking about it. He's got too much to lose now."
Earnhardt privately acknowledged that quitting was much on his mind. If nothing else, the hits against the concrete walls had become just too painful.
Even at the moment he died, he surely appeared to be concerned with the future of his company -- he was blocking, keeping onrushing drivers off his own two cars, driven by his son Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip, so that one of them could win the Daytona 500.
When Rusty Wallace decided to quit, he was thinking about it -- mostly because of Earnhardt. Wallace had seen his dear friend build a fortune and an ideal lifestyle, and then not live to enjoy it.
I reminded Gordon of all this, at the time in his career the question must be asked: Are you thinking about it?
When I get in my car and put the helmet on and flip the switch, there's only one thing on my mind.” -- Jeff Gordon
His answer was elaborate.
"When I get in my car and put the helmet on and flip the switch, there's only one thing on my mind," he said. "Now, if you ask me has my schedule changed, have my sleeping habits changed, do I try to spend as much time as I can with my daughter and my wife, heck yeah. Absolutely. ...
"But it doesn't affect me any more than when I was single and had all the time in the world to focus on racing, and then I was off looking for a girlfriend and hanging out with my buddies and going on vacation. ...
"And of course I'm always thinking of the future. I'm always thinking of investments and making the most of the opportunities I've been given. I've been thinking about that ever since I won my first championship. ...
"So of course I think of that now, and I think of my family and those responsibilities.
"But when I get in that race car, and I'm talking to Steve [Letarte, crew chief], I'm sorry, I'm your pretty typical guy.
"I'm one-track minded, and I'm not a multitasker. My wife will tell you the same thing."
All that training, most of his life -- he first climbed into a quarter-midget at age 4 -- blocks out a multitasking world when the green flag drops.
To watch him in the first four races of this season, especially his second-place run at Atlanta on Sunday, is to be sure there is no multitasking going on inside that car.
On tires with a structure and compound he couldn't begin to understand, slipping and sliding all over one of the fastest tracks in NASCAR, there was not a moment to multitask. He made totally focused, fearless run after totally focused, fearless run with only one task in his head -- beating Kurt Busch and winning the race.
Gordon came up short only because Busch's crew had hit upon a slightly better setup than Gordon's crew had.
It was the peak of Gordon's proof so far this season that inside the car, he is not "thinking about it."
"I'm just as passionate," he said, "and I'm just as competitive, and I feel like I'm just as good."
There is no arguing with that. Not this spring, anyway.
There is only waiting out the old NASCAR truism that when you keep putting yourself in position to win, week after week, then sooner or later -- probably sooner -- you will win.
And winning in NASCAR is a singular task.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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