At the tender age of 29, Jeff Gordon has already won three Winston Cup championships, and his 53 checkers ties him with Rusty Wallace for the most victories among active drivers.
And after a two year “slump” – one that saw the DuPont Chevrolet pilot finish sixth in the final standings in 1999 and ninth last year – Gordon is, once again, at the top of the heap and driving with the same passion and intensity that earned him the nickname “Wonder Boy.”
“It’s been since 1999 since I was at the top of the standings, so it feels good,” Gordon says. “But I also realize this is going to be one of those years where the leaders change quite a bit. I think you’ve already seen how competitive things have been in 2001.”
After the year began on a sad note with Dale Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500, things are slowly returning to normal in NASCAR’s premiere league. Gordon has a victory at Las Vegas, second-place finishes at Atlanta and Fontana, Calif., and a third-place spot at Rockingham. He is a strong second in the points standings.
The California native has been a force ever since a 30th-place finish in Florida and is poised to break the tie with Wallace and challenge for his fourth series crown.
“Things are going real well for us,” Gordon says. “Each week that we run, we build confidence, but we still realize we’re only [five] races into the season. What we have to do is maintain consistency, and if we can do that, there’s no doubt we can challenge for the championship at the end of the year.”
Gordon was one of the most highly touted rookies to enter Winston Cup competition, and in his first full season (1993), the youngster managed two second-place showings and finished a respectable 14th in the points standings. Two years later, Gordon would win the first of his three series crowns, and between 1996 and 1998, he would grab a staggering 33 checkers.
Once crew chief Ray Evernham resigned, however, some thought Gordon’s star would begin to fade. Although he has logged 13 wins since Evernham left to initiate the Dodge effort, there were still those who believed that his crew chief was responsible for much of Gordon’s success.
Now, it’s obvious Gordon is a great driver, and his new team is already making noise with Robbie Loomis as crew chief and Brian Whitesall as team manager; the trio has meshed into one of Winston Cup’s finest outfits.
“I liked Robbie right away and knew he and I would work well together,” Gordon says. “And Brian adds a lot of depth to the operation of the team. Really, although we lost a crew chief and a pit crew member here and there, our team never dissolved.”
“I think from a unity standpoint, we’re stronger than ever. You can either break apart or cling together when you have changes, and we’ve clung together.”
With Earnhardt’s death, Gordon is often viewed as the focal point of NASCAR. However, it’s a role he says can’t be filled by one person.
“Dale’s not someone you can replace,” Gordon says. “The sport will go on, but it won’t go on as it did before when Dale was around. He was the main focus, but now there are a lot of superstars in this sport, and all of them can help NASCAR keep growing. I want to represent the sport as well as I can, but my main job is to go out and win races and compete for championships. A lot of other guys are out there doing the same thing, and all of us are trying our best to represent NASCAR well.”
In a sport generally devoid of scandal, Gordon is the poster boy of the All-American athlete. It’s an image he doesn’t plan on altering.
“NASCAR is fortunate in that we have competitors who genuinely care about the fans and care about being good people,” he says. “I just try to stay down to earth. On race day I do some hospitality stuff, meet with our sponsors go to the drivers meeting, go to chapel service, eat lunch, kiss my wife and go racing.
“I think the biggest part of the day is chapel service because it keeps me focused and lets me think about what’s really important.”
Although Gordon once dreamed of being an open-wheel star and competing in the Indianapolis 500, he says Winston Cup competition is his only priority. And he hopes to continue to star as a stock car driver for many years.
“I plan on hanging around as long as I’m competitive and healthy.” he says. “There comes a time when you just don’t have the talent anymore, and when that time comes for me, I’ll know it’s time to give it up.
“But I’m totally focused on Winston Cup, and that’s my passion. I hope I can be competitive for a long time before I have to think about giving it up.”