The Cool Down Lap: With drought over, Gordon will roll

Resume the countdown. Like a space shuttle mission placed on hold during a prolonged stretch of bad weather, Jeff Gordon's assault on NASCAR's record books took a temporary, albeit extended hiatus of 47 races, a dry spell that ended Sunday with a...

Resume the countdown.

Like a space shuttle mission placed on hold during a prolonged stretch of bad weather, Jeff Gordon's assault on NASCAR's record books took a temporary, albeit extended hiatus of 47 races, a dry spell that ended Sunday with a victory in the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Eventually, though, there's a break in the weather, and the shuttle takes off, just as Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet did Sunday. Not only did Gordon break the longest drought of his career, he did it a track that had frustrated him in his 16 previous starts there.

With victory in hand, not to mention a comfortable lead in the Sprint Cup championship standings, Gordon can look ahead toward milestones that will define in detail his Hall of Fame career.

With 82 victories, Gordon stands head and shoulders above the next most prolific active driver, Bill Elliott, who has 44 wins. Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson is third with 41, driving a car in which Gordon has a minority ownership.


One more win and Gordon will tie Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time list. Two more, and he'll tie Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third. Three more, and only Richard Petty's unassailable mark of 200 victories and David Pearson's formidable 105 will be ahead of him.

Gordon's resurgence isn't an accident. During the offseason, he made sure he and crew chief Steve Letarte were on the same page as the 2009 season approached.

During Gordon barren 2008 season, no other crew chief in the Cup garage was vilified by outsiders as roundly as Letarte was for Gordon's struggles, even as Gordon stood staunchly by his man. But Letarte didn't take a refresher course in crew chief school, as Waltrip blithely suggested on the Fox telecast of Sunday's race. His efforts and Gordon's simply have begun to bear fruit.

"I feel like we had some missed opportunities last season, even as we didn't have a great year," Gordon said after celebrating his win in victory lane. "But there were still times we could have won. And so that just keeps you driving and driving hard and pushing forward.

"At the end of this season, I wrote Steve an e-mail, and we talked a lot. And I just saw the progress that was being made in the final 10 races (of 2008) with how Steve's restructuring the engineering and the team and his efforts.

"And it just fired me up to want to do even more than I already was. The whole year has just been like that since Daytona--just see a different look in the guys' eyes. You see a different effort that's being put out."

Just as a racecar has to have a comfortable balance, so does a racecar driver's life. After struggling with the newness of fatherhood in 2008, Gordon has found a pleasant equilibrium that allows him to focus on the job at hand.

It's no accident that wife Ingrid and daughter Ella, who was born June 20, 2007, weren't in Texas to witness Gordon's breakthrough victory. Last year, Ella had begun sleeping through the night, and the Gordons decided to bring her to the spring race in Fort Worth.


The weekend went haywire. Ella was up all night on the eve of the race, and so was Gordon. Sleep deprived and fighting a car that drove like a snowplow, he suffered through a miserable afternoon--while it lasted. Hard contact with the Turn 4 wall knocked Gordon out of the race after 124 laps and dropped him to the second 43rd-place finish of his career--both at Texas.

Ingrid and Ella were nowhere to be found this past Sunday, except in Gordon's thoughts and words after he exited the car.

"We just made a decision that this is a tough sport," Gordon said. "You got to take it serious, and you've got to be committed. And this is my job. They come every chance that they can, and when it doesn't work out, you know, it doesn't work out.

"I really hate that they weren't able to celebrate with me (Sunday). But I think, because of this win, we're going to win more races this year, and they're going to be there for those."

Gordon won four Cup championships under NASCAR's previous scoring system. Before he retires, he wants to win one under the Chase format, which was introduced in 2004.

There may be miles to go before he sleeps, as the poet said, but the milestones are likely to come quickly, now that Gordon and Letarte have found their way back to victory lane.

For Gordon, life is good--and getting better.

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