Gordon picked up speed in his restart
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / September 22, 2011
Jeff Gordon says he didn’t feel compelled to reinvent himself when he was paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson during an organizational shakeup at Hendrick Motorsports before the start of the 2011 NASCAR season.
Gordon, 40, now with flecks of gray sprouting from his sideburns, felt he was the same driver who was winning three NASCAR titles during his roaring 20s and his turbo-charged 30s.
“I’ve never been one to focus on age and whether I was young or I was old,’’ said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet, one of three Hendrick drivers who qualified for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. “I think the only reason it’s come up this year is because I’ve not stepped up and performed the way that was championship-caliber the last couple of years.’’
Since NASCAR adopted its 10-race playoff format, Gordon had been rendered an afterthought by teammate Jimmie Johnson, whose fifth consecutive title last year broke the tie he shared with Gordon for most among active drivers.
While Johnson was busy hoarding his five trophies, Gordon was struggling to win one under the new format. He finished third in 2004, sixth in 2006 (after failing to make the cut in 2005), second in 2007, seventh in 2008, third in 2009 (in a Hendrick 1-2-3 sweep), and ninth last year.
“You could easily look at it and say, ‘Well, he’s older, he’s a dad now, and he’s got a couple of kids.’ So you could easily blame it on that,’’ Gordon said. “But I haven’t gone anywhere. I haven’t changed.
“It’s just that we’re focusing on the fine-tune areas of making our stuff capable of winning and being championship-caliber instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.’’
Still, car owner Rick Hendrick could see that the time Gordon had spent away from Victory Lane was beginning to take its toll.
“He’s always been a team player, but I could see that Jimmie winning those championships got to him,’’ Hendrick said. “And when Jimmie won the fifth one and he was no longer tied with Jeff, he now had one more than Jeff did and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to split them up and put them in different buildings and pair them with the other team.’’
So Gordon moved out of the 24/48 shop he shared with Johnson and, in effect, moved into Mark Martin’s seat in the No. 5 car, inheriting Gustafson as his crew chief and the 5’s crew. Dale Earnhardt Jr. went over to the 24/48 shop and was paired with Gordon’s former crew chief, Steve Letarte.
“You know it had to work on his head,’’ Hendrick said. “He had a drought in winning races and he had a drought with Jimmie winning championships. So I felt like he and Alan would be a good team.’’
Ending the drought
Hendrick’s hunch proved to be correct, as Gordon rebounded from a poor showing in the season opener at Daytona - where he started second but finished 28th - and won the next race at Phoenix.
That snapped Gordon’s winless streak of 66 races that dated back to his victory at Texas April 5, 2009. It was the only victory Gordon had that season, one that was sandwiched by winless seasons in 2008 and 2010.
“When I saw him and Alan knock off that first win at Phoenix, I saw their jubilation in getting that out of the way,’’ Hendrick said. “I don’t think Jeff ever lost his confidence, but you surely are just not as confident as you were.’’
Especially after a span of three seasons in which he won just once in 108 races.
“But after he got the first win, I could see him and Alan just jelling,’’ Hendrick said. “Then here comes that second [at Pocono in June] and a third win [at Atlanta over Labor Day weekend].
“He could’ve won Bristol and he could’ve won Richmond, so he could’ve been sitting on three in a row. It’s definite, the confidence and the chemistry is there with he and Al.’’
Gordon and Gustafson were off and running, but their partnership was put to the test when they could cobble together only a pair of top-five results at Martinsville (fifth) and Talladega (third) over the next 10 races.
“I’ve known him a number of years,’’ Gordon said of Gustafson. “We’ve talked along the way about his philosophy on set-ups and the things they were doing and I was always impressed and always felt like we got along well and always wondered what it’d be like to work with him.
“This year I’ve gotten that opportunity and, yeah, he’s the real deal. He’s got all the ingredients to be a championship-caliber crew chief and I’m enjoying getting to experience that.’’
Gustafson, too, has come to enjoy working with Gordon.
“The thing about Jeff is he’s as complete as any driver,’’ Gustafson said. “He’s a very good teammate, he’s a very good team member, and he’s a very good racecar driver, so you don’t have to worry about a lot.
“You don’t have to worry about him getting caught up in things he shouldn’t be concerned about. He’s a very smart guy and he knows where to focus his energy. He makes it very easy for me to focus on building the team as strong as you can build it.’’
Next stop, Loudon
The trust and confidence driver and crew chief have was forged in the three victories they shared this season, Gordon’s first multiple-win season since 2007 when he had six.
“A win can do so much for the entire team, and that’s why I’ve said many times this year, a win validates things,’’ Gordon said. “It confirms and builds confidence and chemistry within a team.
“You can have the exact same record in top fives and top 10s and accumulate a lot of points, and you can say, ‘Hey, we’re really good,’ ’’ Gordon said. “But if you don’t get that win - or wins - you’re missing something and it does start to affect you eventually: ‘Aw, we’re good, but we’re not good enough to win.’
“I think that’s the difference between this year versus last year, is that we’re capable of getting into Victory Lane and it’s built our confidence in everything we’re doing.’’
While Gordon generated considerable momentum in qualifying as the No. 3 seed for the Chase, his confidence remained intact despite his 25th-place finish in Monday’s rain-delayed Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, which sent him tumbling eight spots to 11th in the points, 25 astern of leader Kevin Harvick.
Gordon hopes to regain some traction in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He has led the most laps (1,226) of any driver in the Chase, and won three times at Loudon’s 1.058-mile oval (1995, ’97-98), tying him with Kurt Busch for the most by any Cup driver.
“It’s not the easiest track to get figured out,’’ said Gordon, who also has 10 top fives and 18 top 10s in his 33 starts at NHMS. “But, you’re right, it has been a good track for me.’’
Gordon hopes NHMS will serve as a springboard in his resurgence as a championship contender.
“You can call it resurgence or you can call it whatever,’’ Gordon said. “But there’s no doubt the confidence is back, because it hasn’t been there the last few years. But it’s not because I’m doing anything different.
“I’m just able to drive a racecar and be part of a race team that is just special.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.
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