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Letarte had ordered his team to cut up the body of Gordon's car and rebuild it piece by piece, paying particular attention to the nose. At Atlanta, Gordon drove the new car for the first time and--presto!--he suddenly felt like he was no longer piloting an 18-wheeler through the corners. Gordon's lap times were quicker right away. In only his sixth start with Letarte, he won at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Oct. 23, his first victory in 23 races.
The two continued to grow together during the 2006 season. Though Gordon finished sixth in the standings, he was starting to consistently run in the lead pack. With Letarte calmly calling the shots from atop the pit box, Gordon raced to 14 top five finishes in '06, which was one more than Johnson, the Cup winner. Steadily, the Wonder Boy--the nickname given to Gordon by Dale Earnhardt more than a decade ago--was being born again.
The edge is back. It's April Fool's Day 2007 in Martinsville, and in the final laps of the Goody's Cool Orange 500, Gordon is all over the back bumper of Johnson. Gordon has the faster car, but Johnson expertly blocks him. The two bang into each other hard through the last turn--really hard--but Johnson beats Gordon by .065 of a second, a few feet.
Gordon hops out of his car on pit road. He curses, kicks a water bottle, even ignores a few fans begging for an autograph--something the p.r.-savvy Gordon hardly ever does. This is a rarely seen side of Gordon's intensity, but then again, this is the new Jeff Gordon, the guy who's so comfortable in his own skin that he now lets all of his emotions show, for better or for worse. "[ Johnson] is the guy to beat for the championship," Gordon fumes in Martinsville. "I'm not happy."
So began two of the most dominating months of racing of Gordon's career. He won under the lights at Phoenix International Raceway on April 21. Eight days later in Talladega, Ala.--the soul of Earnhardt country--he took the 77th checkered flag of his career on what would have been Dale's 56th birthday. In doing so he passed the Intimidator for sixth on the alltime wins list, prompting scores of fans to hurl cans of Budweiser at Gordon's car.
Next it was Letarte's turn to win a race. On May 13 in Darlington, S.C., Gordon was in second place behind Johnson late in the Dodge Avenger 500, but his car was overheating and spewing steam from underneath the hood. The caution flag was waved with 22 laps to go. Johnson headed for the pits. Letarte issued a two-word command to Gordon: "Stay out." Letarte was often hesitant to overrule Gordon in 2006 and to make gutsy calls, but he has gained self-confidence with experience. Thanks to Letarte's directive at Darlington, Gordon assumed the lead, though he figured his engine was about to blow. But Letarte knew that no one could catch Gordon as long as his car was in front and in clean air. "We've got this," Letarte calmly said over the radio. "Stay with us." Gordon did, and his engine held out long enough to beat Denny Hamlin to the finish line for his third win in four races.
Letarte wasn't done. On June 10 in Long Pond, Pa., with thunderstorm clouds approaching Pocono Raceway, he ordered Gordon to pit even though he still had plenty of gas in his tank. The television commentators on TNT blasted Letarte, but he wanted Gordon to be on a different pit cycle than the rest of the field, which meant that Gordon would inherit the lead when everyone else came onto pit road. This gave Gordon about a 20-lap window to steal the race if rain started to fall. Then, just four laps before Gordon would have had to stop for gas, the thunderstorm arrived. The race was red-flagged, and when it was announced over the P.A. system that the event was called and Gordon was the winner, Gordon leaped into Letarte's arms on pit road. "You are the man!" yelled Gordon, who fully understood that he hadn't won the race, Letarte had. On Sunday at Sonoma, Gordon finished seventh. There was a glitch, however: In a prerace inspection NASCAR officials found that illegal modifications had been made to the front of Gordon's car. Gordon will probably be docked at least 100 points, and Letarte will likely be suspended for at least four races. ( NASCAR had yet to announce penalties when SI went to press on Monday.) But don't expect this to derail Gordon's season. Letarte will still be in constant contact with the team each race weekend by cellphone and e-mail.
Could life be any better for Jeff Gordon? He married Vandebosch last Nov. 7 in Mexico, and the couple recently purchased a penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Last week in New York City, Vandebosch gave birth to their baby daughter, Ella Sofia Gordon.
"I'm in the best place in my life that I've ever been," Gordon said recently over lunch at a Birmingham restaurant. "That definitely plays a role in how you perform as a race car driver. I'm so happy to have Steve as my crew chief, and things couldn't be any better with Ingrid. Hopefully we can continue to roll."
There are still 20 races left in the season, so Gordon's 2007 story can't yet be fully written. But he has a beautiful new wife, a healthy child and his most successful team in years. Even if he doesn't win the Cup in November, he can still truly say his cup runneth over.