At 30, Gordon poised to shift into a higher gear
INDIANAPOLIS -- Winning his third Brickyard 400 for the third time is just one in a long list of accomplishments by Jeff Gordon. And at 30, he may be just getting started.
Gordon, whose birthday was Saturday, didn't win his first Winston Cup event until he was 22 and in his second full season in the stock car series.
Since then, the victories have come in clusters, adding up to 56 after Sunday's triumph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon, the winningest active driver on the circuit, is now in sole possession of seventh place on the all-time victory list, one ahead of Lee Petty and 20 behind the late Dale Earnhardt, who is sixth.
Since most Winston Cup drivers begin their peak years in their early- to mid-30s, the best of Gordon's career could be in front of him. Does that mean that the record 200 victories by Richard Petty -- Lee's son and the longtime King of NASCAR -- could be within his reach?
"You know, I try not to think too far ahead," Gordon said. "I think I've always been like that where I kind of live in the moment. ... I never dreamed, never imagined that I'd be in this type of position."
Gordon hopes that success at 30 "means that I'm coming into my prime."
"If the next 10 are as good as these last 10 have been, I'm not going to know what to think. But, in our business, just getting to 40 means something, too. That's why I think sometimes you've got to live in the moment."
Gordon, a fan favorite here because he is a former resident of nearby Pittsboro, felt a tidal wave of cheers from the more than 300,000 fans at Indy -- a rarity for the driver who more often hears the boos.
He admitted he had tears in his eyes when he heard the overwhelmingly positive reaction following his 10 car-length victory over Sterling Marlin.
Through most of his career, people have not given Gordon credit for his accomplishments, laying the results on his good fortune in driving for a big- money team like Hendrick Motorsports or having a mentor like former crew chief Ray Evernham.
After one so-so -- for Gordon -- season, during which he and new crew chief Robbie Loomis got used to each other while winning three races and finishing ninth in the points, the team is apparently well on its way to a fourth Winston Cup title.
Gordon will now head to the road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y. -- where he has won three of the past four races -- with a 160-point lead over runner-up Dale Jarrett after 21 of 36 events.
Rick Hendrick, for whom Gordon has driven his entire Winston Cup career, saw potential, of course, but never dreamed what he had when he first put Gordon into one of his Chevrolets for his debut in the season-ending race in Atlanta in 1992.
"He amazes me every time I see him in the car," Hendrick said after joining Gordon for his latest victory celebration, kissing the yard of bricks on the start-finish line at the Indy track.
"When he started, he had this raw unbelievable talent and brains beyond anything I've seen," the team owner added. "But Jeff matured so quick."
Hendrick has been particularly impressed at how Gordon has stepped up as a leader since Evernham left late in the 1999 season to start his own team and help Dodge re-enter the Winston Cup series after 16 years.
"Before, I think he didn't have to be a leader," Hendrick said. "Ray kind of led the team, and he was always telling Jeff, 'Do this. Come here.' Last year, Jeff stepped up and became involved in the chassis and telling them on the radio what he thought the car would need.
"I saw him mature to another level, I mean way beyond a 30-year-old. I've seen some 50-year-olds out here that are not as mature as he's been."
Hendrick doesn't expect Gordon to lose any of his ability any time soon, despite all his success and adulation at such a young age.
"He's got the whole package, and you'd think it would flatten out and level off, and it hasn't," Hendrick said. "It just keeps getting better."
As for Gordon, he just wants to make sure he doesn't overlook how good life is right now.
"I have no regrets," he said" 'I've been very blessed and have enjoyed it very, very much. So, no matter what happens, I'll always say that I've had a wonderful life."