Commentary

New competitive fire burning in Gordon

Updated: March 11, 2009, 4:01 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

We begin this week with props to Jamie McMurray. He had the sickest in-race save I've ever seen. (Jimmie Johnson's string of Sarah Hughes pirouettes during qualifying at Dover a couple years back was spectacular, too.)

For all intents and purposes, McMurray was wrecked, but he somehow managed to channel Steve Kinser and rally the 26 like he was riding the cushion at Pevely. It was crazier than Joaquin Phoenix. Lee Smith would be proud of that save.

On to The Six …

(Jeff Gordon leads off this week, and I couldn't choose between two questions, so I used them both.)

Marty,

Been a Jeff Gordon fan since he had the mustache. Last week you wrote about how Kurt Busch is back. Well, what about Jeff?!! Wake up and give the man his due! A bunch of other writers are saying he's back. Where you at? This year will be a championship year for Jeff.

Last year you wrote about how he should have six championships and that's the truth. People forget that Jimmie [Johnson] wouldn't have all those championships without the Chase. Will Jeff win it all this year? Can he do it? His fans know he can!! Your turn, Marty.

-- Mark Underwood, Sacramento, Calif.

I definitely see a new fire in Gordon, Mark. It's unmistakable, though he downplays it as imaginary. (Not unlike the mustache).

He cites newfound comfort driving the new car as the key difference between last year and this. He's secure standing on the throttle off the corner; a confidence he said he has not had in a while. A new engineering staff, with new simulation tactics, and a more stringent physical fitness regimen have keyed his resurgence, as well.

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I've not asked him this, so it's just an opinion, but judging by what I've seen from him in the season's first month, I think the testing reduction -- and the residual personal time it affords him -- has rejuvenated Gordon. The tedium of his position isn't quite so maddening. He's a family man now; being home is clutch. Trust me, I know.

Also -- and you'll question my sanity on this one -- I honestly believe he gets so pumped about new paint schemes that it affects him mentally. He's kid-on-Christmas-excited to drive that new paint scheme and wear that new suit. I know it sounds ridiculous, but with him I believe it.

Bottom line is he's a contender. To run that well at Fontana -- when was the last time you saw him smoke the tires trying to catch somebody? -- and then back it up at Vegas with another great run says all that needs saying. Especially when he didn't have a left-front fender. (On that note, Steve Letarte deserves credit for not directing Gordon to the garage and instead choosing to repair it on the pit lane, and the crew gets all the love for doing so without losing a lap.)

Say what you want: Those are the types of efforts that, come November, determine championships.

"I agree," Gordon said Sunday evening when I broached the topic with him. "It's been a while since we've been able to go out there and battle like that for the lead. Two weeks in a row I've been able to pass [Johnson]. I haven't done that in a long time. Neither has anyone else."

Gordon isn't satisfied. He's pleased, not satisfied.

Ask his peers and they'll tell you he's still the best driver on the racetrack. Yet, oddly, after a year considered dismal by his stratospheric standards, he has something to prove, even to many of his fans. Example:

Marty,

2007 had to be the biggest letdown for the 24 team considering its dominance only to come up just points short of a fifth title. Do you think Gordon's shortcoming two years ago contributed heavily to his winless '08 season, and do you think his performance in the beginning of this season is showing that he has shaken the funk?

-- Trucker Bill, Abilene, Texas

Absolutely, Big Mack. Proof:

"I don't mind taking the blame, because I definitely feel like over the years I've had my highs and lows," Gordon said. "I've gotten older. There's been times when I've complained too much on the radio and other times I didn't complain enough. This last year and a half has been a real challenge because I became a father.

"We battled with Jimmie [Johnson] for the championship in '07 and we lost it. We came up short. I think that may have taken a little bit of wind out of our sails. Then also being a father, I certainly wasn't getting much sleep, and while I'm having a blast being a dad, it's a lot of hard work."

(Outside of mother, it's the hardest, yet most rewarding job on earth.)

"So balancing all those things out, you're going to go through highs and lows," he continued. "Last season on the racetrack was where some of the lows showed up. Because of that it really helped us -- me personally, as well as us as team -- dig down deep to see what we're capable of, and what we really want out of our lives. Especially at the racetrack.

"It motivated us to [show] we're better than this, and we want more than this. We're not going to go away."

Obviously.

Need proof?

1. Victory Lane in the Gatorade Duel.
2. Second at Fontana.
3. Sixth at Vegas with half a car.

"It just says what kind of team, what kind of effort, what kind of race cars we're bringing, and we're gonna keep doing it," he said. "And right now it's obviously important to be consistent, and keep getting points. But we know we've got to get those bonus points and start winning some races if we're going to be a real factor for the championship."

I have the distinct feeling he will do so.

Marty,

You deserve some credit. You were right about Bobby Labonte, as you said he would be back this year. Most people said he couldn't drive anymore and that he'd never win again. He showed he could at Las Vegas, and his fans love it! I can't remember the last time I was on the edge of my seat wondering if he'd win the race. It's been years!!

-- Nadeen Porter, Denton, Texas

It was a rather simple equation, really, Nadeen: A driver of Labonte's caliber driving what amounts to Roush Fenway equipment with a proven, gritty old-school racer crew chief calling the shots added up to, well, fast.

It's like Tony Stewart told me last weekend: Champions don't just forget how to drive, media and fans just stop giving them credit when they struggle. Stewart said nine times out of 10 waning performance is typically based on driver discomfort and miscommunication.

It's also about equipment, and Labonte hasn't had a motor like this in five years.

After the race I was chatting with Labonte and noticed how oddly unsatisfied he seemed for a guy who just finished in the top five for the first time since 2006. He grinned a bit, then did that Bobby Labonte lip-purse, head-cock thing, then clenched his jaw.

"I am [satisfied] down deep, but dang it, just a little bit more," Labonte said. "We had one more position we probably could have got in one more lap on the 00, but my car was really good. I just feel like I did all I could do, but I know there's more for me to prove in these race cars, and I can't wait to do it."

So it feels good, then?

"I think I said the word 'freaking' in a press conference in late January, and it's pretty freaking awesome," he continued. "I can't wait to get back in it and go."

I said it a few weeks back in D2D: I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he wins a race this year. Hard to believe it's been more than five seasons since he was in Victory Lane.

Marty,

Why doesn't NASCAR red-flag the race when a caution comes out with under 20 laps to go? At Las Vegas there were seven laps under caution, which could have been great while they cleaned up Paul Menard's wreck. I believe the fans missed out.

-- Cory, Wausau, Wis.

I do, too, Cory. But we're fans. We're going to complain.

NASCAR does what it can to maintain the flow of the race and expedite cleanup during a caution. In this particular instance, there was difficulty with the vacuum truck and the kitty litter-spreader truck. Normally, a cleanup like that takes three or four laps. This time, with the truck issues, it took several more due to the problems encountered with the trucks.

I contacted NASCAR for comment and got no response, so I'll have to presume its reasoning for not red-flagging it. The race had run long, and there was a blizzard heading east. The teams had been on the West Coast for 10 days and needed to get home.

And you know what? Ultimately, Kyle Busch was a deserving winner. He methodically marched through the field to achieve the dream in his hometown. How many times has a driver won a race, then stood in as best man at some random guy's Victory Lane wedding? Unprecedented.

It's a great story, unless you're Johnson. He was frustrated with NASCAR following the race that officials had blown some decisions critical to his day.

"I think that there were some bad calls that ended up hurting us [Sunday]," Johnson said. "One on pit road. We selected our pit stall on the other side of the start/finish line so that if the caution came out we wouldn't be held on the lead lap. I think NASCAR missed that call, but I've got to go back and look at the tapes and see exactly how that works out. But we picked that stall for a reason in that respect.

"And then they should have thrown the red well before, and [they] let these laps wind down at the end of the race today, in my opinion. All that wrapped up into my frustration in trying to get to the front. We had the best car. It was just unfortunate that I just got a little too aggressive and I piled it up."

Marty!

What? No song of the week? How 'bout Wade Hayes -- "Old Enough to Know Better"? I can never find your column on ESPN's NASCAR homepage. I have to enter it in ESPN's Search area. Can you throw me a bone here?! Roll Tide!

-- Dan Cole, Halifax, Nova Scotia

I remember that song, Dan. It was big when I was high school. Didn't Hayes arm-wrestle some dude in the video? He had a sweet mullet, too, as I recall, total mini-truck. I took a lot of flak last week for skipping out on the song of the week:

Marty!!

What the [heck], man? The Six love the racing stuff you write, but it's really all about the songs! My friends and I check out the music you promote! Stop being lazy and bring it back!

-- Charlie Neal, Fayetteville, Ark.

Whooo Pig Sooey! (Or whatever is that Razorbacks yell.)

One time I drove across America for Speed Channel with my buddy Quinn Collins from NASCAR Media Group in search of race fans in obscure places, and we stopped in Fayetteville en route to Batesville, Mark Martin's hometown. We hit a bar on campus and I met this girl who told me she was a huge NASCAR fan and desperately wanted to be on TV.

We turned on the camera and I asked her who her favorite driver was.

"Elliott Saturn."

Big fan, indeed.

Hey Marty,

To go further with how you ended your last column saying that being a hard-core fan all you needed was a couple of beers during the race and you'd be happy:

Assuming you can't (or shouldn't) imbibe on the sweet nectar of the gods while covering a race, how often do you get to kick back on your couch at home and take in a race like the rest of us? Keep up the good work. Just don't forget to give us your song of the week. There's got to be some song talking to you lately, right?

-- Chris Hall, Bondurant, Iowa

Zero consumption during work weekend race days, Chris. But on weekends when I don't travel -- I'll do about 25 or so races this year -- my buddies and I get together, throw back a few too many cold ones at the Tamantha Wood Resort, mercilessly degrade one another and chuck footballs around the room like we actually have talent. The in-race analysis is stellar, like "Sports Reporters" meets Stern meets "Hee-Haw." It should be a radio show.

Now, song of the week: "Down the Road." Kenny Chesney and Mac McAnally. The first time I heard this version of this song I was back home in Virginia and couldn't help but grin. It's gorgeous. McAnally is an amazing writer and captures so well the sacred, smitten small-town country life I lived back home growing up, and the way mamas and daddies pray for the best and fear the worst for their daughters in love. The way McAnally transitions from first love to father-daughter is masterful.

Marty,

Despite the sponsorship/manufacture gloom and doom and *$@3&^ car of today, it sure has been an interesting start to the season -- hasn't it, Marty? Do you think David Ragan can win his first race this year? Do you think he's gonna make the Chase again this year?

-- Pete from Canton, Ga.

By all means he can win his first race this season, and in fact I think he will. Maybe even this weekend in his hometown. His improvement is not to be understated -- he was the most improved driver in 2008 by a substantial margin. He's talented, and I'd love to see UPS bring him out of the corporate shell with some witty advertising.

I don't think he'll make the Chase, Pete. It's hard to make it again when you've not made it once. (Just busting your chops, man.) The potential is there for Ragan to contend; just look at last year. But I don't think he'll make the Chase.

Marty,

With the engine failures at LVMS, the Roush crew chiefs were asking the drivers not to over-rev on restarts and exiting the pits, and Mark Martin's engine blew when it over-revved after jumping out of gear. Do the cars not run rev-limiters? With AMS being faster will we see more failures there?

-- Jason Brown, Auckland, New Zealand

Yes, they run rev-limiters, Jason. It's impossible to tell whether we'll see more failures at Atlanta, but it stands to reason we could. First of all, Atlanta is a 500-mile race -- nearly 100 miles longer than Vegas.

Second, due to the season, Atlanta races are typically run in optimum-horsepower conditions, i.e., cool air and low humidity. Few races are as hard on motors as this one. Jeff Andrews, Hendrick Motorsports' engine guru, says that makes tuning the engine at AMS critical.

"Atlanta is a difficult track to prepare for," Andrews said. "When you keep the engine within a higher RPM range, as you do in Atlanta, and couple that with a higher percentage of your lap time at wide-open throttle, you increase the operating temperature on key internal components like pistons and exhaust valves and seats, which causes higher fatigue in these components.

"Then you consider the tires, what's happening with the car and the track configuration, among other factors. So you can't pinpoint one thing and say, 'This is it. This is the key.' It's a combination of many different variables."

Hey Marty,

Thanks for the spot-on words about the Fontana race. I am much like you, and can find something to enjoy about any race. I, too, was there Sunday and thought the racing overall was pretty good. The last 30 laps between Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth were great.

Gordon was driving for all he was worth and Kenseth did the same. Also, Greg Biffle drove like he was on fire trying to make up for his pit mistake. Kurt Busch impressed me, too. We'll see if can keep it going. Thanks for all the NASCAR love. Keep up the positive vibes. We can all use it in these trying times.

-- Bob, Upland, Calif.

Just being honest, Bob. Look, I get bored sometimes, too. And there were times during the Fontana race that I focused on basketball on an adjacent TV. But when the racing is as good as it was at the end of that race -- legitimately good, not contrived good -- why not say so?

Side note: I love how some folks have delusions of grandeur about old-school NASCAR, about how "great" the competition was in the '70s and '80s. It was wonderful to watch, sure. But it was wonderful to watch for folks who had an insatiable desire to see it.

Fact is, there are more competitive cars now than there were then. Many more. Trust me.

That's my time. I've taken far too much of yours this week. To close I want to send thoughts and prayers to my buddy Chad Willis from Sprint's NASCAR marketing team. His mother, Yvonne, passed this week. Also thoughts and prayers to the families of the missing football players, and a quick reminder to everyone to thank the troops. Those boys are still over there dodging bullets for us. Don't forget it.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.