1 Jeff GORDON
2004 SEASON 6,490 POINTS; 3RD PLACE
JEFF GORDON laughed at the question, as if he'd just heard a rib-tickling oneliner at a roast in his honor. As Gordon sat in his team's hauler at Bristol Motor Speedway on Aug. 26, with the Sharpie 500 two days away, he was asked if he's a better driver now, at 33, than he was in his 20s, when he won three championships between 1995 and '98.
"What, you think I'm over the hill?" Gordon said between guffaws. "I mean, I sure hope I'm better. I've certainly got more experience, and I think I make better decisions on the racetrack. Heck, I think I'm just starting to hit my prime."
How impressive was the (aging) Kid in 2004? He led the Nextel Cup in top 10 finishes with 25, seven of which came in the season's final 10 races, and he had more poles (six) than any other driver on the circuit except Ryan Newman, who had nine.
"The amazing thing about Jeff is that he rarely makes a mistake, and he always gets the most out of the car," says Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis. "There's a reason he's won as many championships as he has: He's damn good."
Gordon's most impressive regular-season victories last year came at Talladega and Daytona, the two superspeedways that had long been dominated by Dale Earnhardt, Inc. But when Gordon became the first driver since Cale Yarborough in 1981 to win Daytona's Pepsi 400 from the pole on July 3, it signaled the end of DEI's restrictor-plate hegemony. More significant, that victory makes Gordon an early favorite to take the checkered flag at the 2005 Daytona 500. "We were pretty sick and tired of watching [DEI] play with us on the superspeedways," says Gordon. "They could pass when they wanted, pull out and lead when they wanted. It was embarrassing."
"Even though Jeff's been doing this a long time, trust me when I say he's not slowing down at all," says teammate Jimmie Johnson. "In reality, he's speeding up."
Indeed, Gordon, like Scotch, appears to be getting better with age. Which is why he's SI's pick to win it all in 2005.
RUNS WELL AT: A history buff, Gordon is more driven to win at Indy than at any other track. He won for a record-tying fourth time at the Brickyard in '04.