Jeff Gordon savors the wins at this point in his career.
The four-time NASCAR champion explained that a race car driver, like any athlete, goes through stages of his career where the goals and even his reactions to winning are different.
“I remember coming in and you just want to solidify yourself in this sport, get in victory lane and prove you can do it,” Gordon said. “Then, like 1998, we built quite a resume’ of wins. I remember about the ninth or 10th win of the ’98 season, I went to the race track and expected to be there. You don’t fully appreciate it.
“Like Pocono last year, I appreciate those wins more than ever. To go to the end of the season with my wife and kids at Homestead, nothing feels better than that. I savor those moments better than I have in the past.”
Part of it is being 41, while the other side of it is the fact the wins don’t come as frequently these days. Although Gordon has moved into third-place on NASCAR’s all-time win list with 87 victories, only six of those wins have come since 2008.
At Bristol Motor Speedway, he’s tied with the Busch brothers with five wins for the most among active drivers. However, he hasn’t won on the high-banked short track since 2002.
Still, that hasn’t tempered his enthusiasm for this year or for this Sunday’s Food City 500.
“When you’ve been in the sport as long as I have, you’re going to go through your ups and downs,” he said.” We had fast race cars last year. We did climb and claw our way into the Chase, even though it wasn’t pretty. You win at Homestead and then you look at that Chevy SS and that’s a race car. I don’t think there’s any question we can battle for wins and the championship.”
The lower number of wins came in NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow.” It’s made Gordon excited about the prospects of racing the new Gen-6 version of the No. 24 Chevrolet. It’s similar to the car which he had the most success with.
“I never was a fan of the COT from the beginning,” Gordon siad. “We went from a car twisted up with all these aerodynamics to it, but we went completely away from that. It wasn’t a sexy car, but we made it into a good race car. This race car, it feels good, it drives good and has a great aerodynamic balance. So far, I’m a big fan. I love it, like what’s happening underneath the car.”
Still, Gordon was able to adapt somewhat to the Car of Tomorrow. He won three races in 2011, and made a dramatic push to make the Chase last season, when he won two races and scored four runner-up finishes.
However, Gordon added old habits are hard to break, especially in his 20th season on the Sprint Cup circuit.
“I feel like the last couple of years we were competitive with the old car,” Gordon said. “The whole thing with driving style, when you get to the point of my career, I can’t change my driving style. What happens is my style and my way of going about things, I try to keep that consistent. I try to work around that style.
“Sometimes when our teammates are running good, we try that set-up in my car and I don’t like that. Immediately, you’re struggling with the car. You have to have the team believe in what you’re doing and you believe in them. All of a sudden, you’re doing things different, but you’re getting the same results.”
Gordon, a Vallejo, Calif. native, won over 600 races and was a champion in USAC Sprint Car before making it in NASCAR’s top series at age 21. Even with his Hall of Fame credentials which includes 72 career poles, there have been times when he and the crew haven’t seen eye-to-eye on what it takes for the car to go fast.
“The key for me is to not lose sight of what’s made me successful,” he said. “I try not to frustrate the team too much when it’s not working the way I want it. What I’ve seen with this new car, I look at what kind of things we can do to get it balanced and how hard can I push this car.”
Although the new car is more comfortable as a whole, there are new things to which Gordon must adapt. It’s especially true when the car is on the edge going through the turns.
“I liked with the old car how you could go and the car would rotate and stay pretty consistent in the corner,” he said. “Now with the new rear-end housings, it will take me a little time to work with the set-ups so it doesn’t rotate too quick. It has a lot of grip so you really can be aggressive.
“The challenge is going to be some of those slick tracks with rock-hard tires because it’s not so much about sliding the car around, but getting track position and being aggressive.”