Here He Comes
Despite a winless first half, Jeff Gordon's drive for Winston Cup number five is very much alive
Jeff Gordon can't catch a break. He hasn't won a race in 25 starts, his longest winless streak since the beginning of his Winston Cup career, when he went 41 events before taking his first checkered flag. His divorce from his wife of seven years has been publicly acrimonious and sometimes bizarre. (His soon-to-be ex, Brooke, wants more money because, she claims, she dressed him well, which made him more appealing to sponsors.) In last Saturday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona, which was won by Michael Waltrip, tough luck visited Gordon again, this time in the form of a flat left-rear tire that put him a lap down. His ensuing 22nd-place finish dropped him from third to fifth in the points race.
Gordon's performance on Saturday neatly summed up the first half of his season. "We've had cars capable of winning, but we've had crazy things happen," he says. To wit: Three weeks ago at Sonoma, where he had been victorious three times in four years, he again looked like the class of the field until he lost a gear, fell behind by seven laps and limped across the start-finish in 37th. At Martinsville in April, Gordon was second when he got a flat trying to avoid a wreck; later he lost his power steering and came home in 23rd place with a tired pair of arms.
Take all these misfortunes together, and what do they augur? That Gordon is going to win his fifth Winston Cup championship, of course. In what is shaping up as the tightest points race in a decade—10th-place Kurt Busch is just 295 points out of the lead—the winless wonder is still the most likely driver to catch leader Sterling Marlin, whom he trails by 150 points.
Last year Gordon was in another tight race before he exploded in late Jury, going from a first-place tie with Dale Jarrett to a 208-point lead in just five events. "There's something about this stretch of the season where Jeff and that whole team are able to flip on the switch," says rookie Jimmie Johnson, who's third in the standings. "We're getting into the stretch where he starts dominating."
As for the oft-espoused theory that Gordon's personal life is harming his driving, consider that in the past, when faced with difficult situations, Gordon seems to have focused even more. "There's no doubt something like that affects you," he says of his divorce. "How could it not? But I've had a lot of things that have been distractions throughout the years, and I've won races and won championships."
Last summer, for example, as he was putting together the deal that placed Johnson in a Gordon-owned car, the Kid was making a mockery of the points race, which he wrapped up with two events left. The addition of Johnson hasn't been a distraction this season, either; the 26-year-old rookie has become so good so fast that the 30-year-old Gordon has occasionally turned to him as a resource. "My ego's not too big that I'm afraid to borrow from him," says Gordon. "I'm not ashamed to say I've learned from Jimmie."
Gordon gives Johnson advice on handling the pressures of driving, while Johnson has helped Gordon through his divorce. "We're able to hang out and just chill," says Johnson. Now all Gordon needs to do is get off the schneid. Even if he doesn't win in July, he's a virtual lock to win at one of the first two venues in August, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen. Gordon is the only three-time winner of the Brickyard 400, and he's won four of his last five starts at the Glen.
Whenever that first win comes, Gordon warns, it will open the floodgates. "I'm looking at this season this way: The first half really hasn't gone that well, but I'm not that far out of the lead," he says. "Imagine what'll happen if we get some things going our way. I know how this team is. If we get a win, watch out."
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