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Published: Friday, 5/14/2004

Back on track: Gordon looking like a championship contender again

BY MIKE HARRIS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Jeff Gordon is older, wiser and definitely back on his game.

“I used to be The Kid,” he joked. “Now I m The Man.”

After a couple of relatively quiet seasons - by Gordon s standards - the four-time series champion and his Hendrick Motorsports team are very much the center of attention again.

He s had five straight top-10 finishes, including victories in the last two Nextel Cup events - the 15th time in his career he has won at least two straight.

“It s nice to have momentum,” said Gordon, who will go for three in a row Saturday night in Richmond. “A lot of that has to do with the way the team has responded. We ve had some bad luck and some bad breaks and they never give up.”

The seed for this season s resurgence was planted in 2000, when Gordon and new crew chief Robbie Loomis struggled to a ninth-place finish in the points. It was Gordon s worst since finishing 14th his rookie year.

Although Gordon bounced back with his fourth title the next year, the No. 24 team didn t return to the dominance it had in the late 1990s.

“Well, 2000 was a tough year for us,” the 32-year-old driver explained. “We questioned ourselves. Once you overcome adversity, it allows you to overcome it more and more and deal with it in a better way.

“I m very fortunate that the people at Hendrick Motorsports never lose sight of that. Each week, no matter what s thrown at us, we put it behind us and go to the next week.”

Since winning his last title in 2001, Gordon has finished fourth each year while a group of young drivers, including his protege, Jimmie Johnson, stole the spotlight.

It didn t get any easier for Gordon. Last season, while struggling through a 31-race winless streak, Gordon also had to deal with a highly publicized divorce from his wife of seven years, Brooke. In the end, Gordon and his wife reached a settlement that guaranteed her at least $15.3 million.

Though Gordon and his team appear back on track this season, Loomis is cautious about getting too excited after only 10 races.

“In this sport, it s funny - it doesn t take much to get on a roll and it doesn t take much to go the other way, either,” said Loomis, who replaced Ray Evernham, Gordon s crew chief and mentor through his first three championships. “That s why you have to keep evolving as a team.

“A lot of times you need to do things differently, to change as you go along, to keep being successful,” Loomis added. “You have to really talk to yourself, to convince yourself not to remain static because then you re not moving forward.”

That s where Gordon s experience and attitude come into play.

A crash at Darlington in March relegated Gordon to a 41st-place finish and bumped him to 13th in the points. Since then, he has been on a tear, finishing ninth, third and sixth before the victories at Talladega and California.

“Jeff is the inspiration of this organization,” Loomis said. “No matter how bad we are in practice or qualifying or early in a race, he instills confidence in everybody.”

Heading into Richmond, Gordon is back up to third in the standings, trailing series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 27 points and Johnson by just two.

One thing that has changed for Gordon and Loomis is the way they are approaching the championship chase in 2004.

NASCAR changed the points system this season, with the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the leader after the first 26 races eligible for the final 10-race “Chase for the Championship.”

“I ve talked to Will Perdue, who used to play for the Chicago Bulls, and some pro football players and they said their approach was to first make the playoffs, then worry about the championship,” Loomis said.

“That s different than the way we ve always looked at it, but that s the approach we re taking now. We re going week by week and race by race to be right where we need to be to go after the Nextel Cup championship.”



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