Gordon steadfast in belief that he can still compete
’I want to win races ... go for the championship,’ he says.
Jeff Gordon doesn’t want to hear about a 41-race losing streak -- not when he feels like the next race, the Daytona 500, is virtually a sure thing for him.
Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion, isn’t in the habit of making brash predictions. But given the fact that he hasn’t won since October 2007 and that crew chief Steve Letarte has come under fire for some of that shortfall, it’s rather odd that a 30th-place finish last summer at Daytona would create so much anticipation for Gordon.
“Well, the biggest reason that I’m really fired up about Daytona this year is without the testing, I felt like we had the best car here last July,” Gordon said. “I made a couple mistakes and cost us the race, but we had, I felt, great power and the best handling car, for sure, in the race.”
In fact, Gordon led 23 laps and was in front with only eight laps to go when he got shuffled back.
The first low-key off-season in Gordon’s 17-year career makes him a big booster of NASCAR’s current testing ban at sanctioned tracks, which he also said insures the edge he had last July at Daytona.
“Now, February is always a little bit different than July because the temperatures are a little bit different, track conditions are a little bit different,” Gordon said. "But with no changes and no testing, we’ve got a great package. Over the offseason I visited our engine shop and I’m really excited about some things that they’ve got going on there, too. I feel like we’ve gotten more power.
“I think Daytona, we’ve got a great opportunity to come here and be very competitive and have a shot at winning another one.”
For what it’s worth, Gordon won his second Cup championship after winning his first Daytona 500, in 1997. That he had no such luck after winning the Great American Race in both 1999 and 2005 is not a deterrent.
And neither are the evil streaks he’s currently mired in, though he did log seven top-10 finishes in his last nine starts of 2008, including four top-fives.
“No matter what kind of season we have -- if we’ve won 13 races or no races -- you always look at what you can do to be better for the next season,” Gordon said. "That’s the way I’m looking at it this season, is I’m not dwelling on the fact that we didn’t win.
“I’m not sitting here saying we’re not capable of winning; I think that we are. I felt like we had some races that got away from us last year that we could have won. But you’ve got to seize those moments and opportunities, especially as competitive as it is these days, and if you look at the guys that were winning last year, they weren’t spreading the love around a whole lot.”
There was a slight shift in the balance of power from 2007, when Gordon won six times and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates won half of the season’s 36 races, to 2008 when Carl Edwards (nine wins), Kyle Busch (eight) and Jimmie Johnson (seven) kept anyone else from winning more than twice.
“I feel like we really hit on some things later in the year, but it was too late,” Gordon said. "So we have a good direction. To me it’s not even about getting back to Victory Lane. Yeah, I want to win races, I want to be competitive enough to win races, I want to be competitive enough to lead laps and competitive enough to go for the championship.
“That’s really what it’s all about, but I think that in order to do that you’re going to win races along the way. I think we’re very capable of doing that this year, and we’re focused, we’re working hard and it’s going to be interesting to see how the no testing policy plays out -- if it’s an advantage for us or a disadvantage. It’s going to be interesting for everybody.”
For Gordon, the most interesting thing about the fact that he’ll be 38 years old this summer is that it seemingly allows him to see personal shortcomings, with the expected adjustments, as necessary.
Last year as the winless streak extended, some questioned Gordon’s ability to deal with the new car on a week-in, week-out basis, even though he’d won twice with it in its first season and took five pole positions.
At Fan Fest earlier this month, Gordon talked about a conversation he had on an airplane with Truck Series driver Rick Crawford, that series’ elder statesman in number of career starts.
“I believe in myself that I still have what it takes [to compete],” Gordon said. "Rick Crawford and I were talking about being in a series for long periods of time and how it’s tough to adjust.
“Any veteran that you talk to, if they’re honest with you, they’ll tell you that sometimes it takes a little longer to transition through new cars, new setups, new tires. And so last year was a little bit of an adjustment for me that I think I’m well-prepared for this year -- but might have gotten a little behind on it last year.”
And that’s where Gordon’s staunch support of Letarte shines. He didn’t blame the long-time Hendrick employee, who worked up from sweeping floors to being featured in TV ads, calling him the only one he’d want to lead his team.
“I really believe Steve is the guy,” Gordon said. “I mean, he’s an awesome crew chief. I know he took a lot of criticism last year, but I believe in him. We’ve made small improvements I feel like that were needed, and I’m doing everything I can to make sure that I play my role in getting us back to Victory Lane.”
Maybe even in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 15.
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