Gordon's using 2008 to set the table for another title run in 2009
Absolutely nothing. Sure, the new car has given the four-time Cup champ fits at times, but Jeff Gordon is still one of the top drivers in the Cup garage, writes Marty Smith.
Originally Published: October 29, 2008By Marty Smith | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Jim R.BoundsSome question whether family man Jeff Gordon's heart is still in the sport. Nonsense, says Jeff Burton.I spent the weekend in the First Turn reserved campground at Atlanta Motor Speedway, slumbering like a sardine with eight in-laws in a beer-packed motor home I drove to Georgia from Charlotte in what would classify as a midsummer Midwest tornado. Downtown Atlanta was dicey, like Level 10 on Frogger, cars shooting across five lanes of traffic in an effort to get to the Golden Corral buffet 2.6 seconds quicker.I now have an idea what a tight race car feels like. It was so windy I was steering left into the current. The center of gravity on that beast is like a teepee. I told Jimmie Johnson about it, and he said I now have an idea what it's like to drive the COT. Funny.D2D returns this week, after a week on the bench in favor of some hellaciously great Chad Knaus analysis from his contemporaries. Folks dug it, though somewhat like Lou Brown dug Willie Mays Hayes' basket catch in "Major League:" "Nice catch, Hayes. Don't ever f------ do it again."On to the Six.Marty, I am a huge Jeff Gordon fan. I really thought last season he would succeed in his drive for the fifth championship. Virtually everything he touched turned to gold, but the championship slipped through his fingers. This year, it's like he and Steve cannot figure out the fine-tuning of the handling of the car and the last adjustment to make to help him win races. I thought he would finally win at either Talladega or Martinsville. Do you see JG winning this year? Do you see him making a serious run at that fifth championship in 2009? Love your columns and reading the questions from the "Six" every week.-- Denise, Jacksonville, Fla.I got a new perspective on Jeff Gordon at Atlanta last weekend, Denise. My man Chase Thompson, an ESPN feature producer, is working on a piece for "NASCAR Now" about the best active driver who has yet to win a title. Cool idea, for which I was charged with asking the driving corps for perspective. In doing so, many drivers jumped the gun on my question, thinking I was preparing to ask who the best driver is in the field. Half the question left my tongue, and they'd cut me off and say "Jeff Gordon." Seriously, it happened about five times. I always knew Gordon was very good, but for whatever reason never realized the respect he has among his peers. He is the best in the eyes of his contemporaries. And he leaves no question who he wants directing his ship. "I want Steve Letarte," Gordon said last weekend. "Steve Letarte is a great crew chief, and the reason why I like him is because he understands, he's very driven, he puts a lot of things in perspective and he's great with the cars and the team as a leader. "I know he's been getting a bad rap this year, but you got to remember he's the same guy that led us to an almost championship last season."
Partnerships like Gordon had with Ray Evernham and like Jimmie Johnson has with Knaus are rare, and therefore stand out, Gordon said. One of the biggest challenges experienced drivers and crew chiefs face is evolution. When a guy finds a consistent approach that works for years, it's damn hard to suddenly move in a different direction. In racing, it may not be broke, but you may need to fix it anyway."As you gain experience and have success, then your idea of what you need becomes very narrowed down, and you have a good idea of what it takes and what it doesn't take," Gordon said. "Like for me and Ray, we started to butt heads a little bit on that, because he pretty much wanted to do things the way he always had and I just didn't feel like that's what I needed. Good or bad, it sort of drove us apart."That's where Gordon is struggling now -- adaptation. Gordon communicates well with Letarte. That's not the issue. The issue, Gordon said, is the new car. What it wants is 180 degrees from what the old car needed. Gordon is learning."Engineering and everything has just changed a lot of things today," Gordon said. "The biggest challenge that I have today, for somebody who has been in this sport for 16 years, is that today's car and adjustments is completely different than what it used to be."It used to be you put a bigger right front spring in the car and it made the car tighter or more comfortable getting into the corner. Now it does the exact opposite. All those things are things that I have to now take that knowledge and block out of my head and erase it, and that's hard to do. "So it takes a crew chief that's got to pound that into your head and steer that ship with confidence."Letarte is that man. Gordon does not waiver in that sentiment.I've heard some folks question Gordon's gumption now that he has Warren Buffett money, a supermodel bride and a precious daughter. That criticism obviously irks Gordon. He facetiously mentioned it while addressing the media at Atlanta. I'll let Jeff Burton address those folks. (Buckle up, this quote is "War and Peace," but it's worth the commitment)."First of all, if anybody believes that Jeff Gordon forgot how to drive, they've lost their mind," Burton said. "If anybody believes that Jeff Gordon still doesn't want to win they've lost their mind. The media and the fans are really quick to give credit to the driver when things are going well. 'That guy is a great driver, he can do this and he can do that.' Two years later they are always saying, 'Well, that guy, he's not as good anymore.'"Jeff Gordon hasn't forgot how to win races, he hasn't forgot how to race. A lot of people are [saying], 'Well, he had a kid' -- it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life. You had a kid and you don't care anymore. Do you think if you have a kid you just wake up one morning and say, 'Well, I don't care anymore'? 'I've got a kid and I've got a child and I love my child so I don't need a trophy anymore.' Competitive people don't work like that."That's why when George Foreman retired he came back. It's why when Michael Jordan retired he came back. It's because you have it in you. Jeff Gordon didn't wake up the day his baby was born and look at the baby and say 'Well, my life is all changed. Now I don't need to race anymore.' It doesn't work like that.
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJeff Gordon says he has complete confidence in his crew chief, Steve Letarte.
with Marty Smith
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