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Gordon wants to prove he still has desire, ability to win
CONCORD, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon knows some people believe he's more interested in walking red carpets with his model girlfriend than he is in winning championships.
He's heard the talk from former champions Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace, who allege Gordon's focus is on his next vacation -- not on his next race.
Gordon has tuned it all out. NASCAR's four-time series champion insists he is as committed as ever to his career.
"The trips and the traveling has nothing to do with the focus," Gordon said. "When I put that helmet on, and I fire up that engine, I am just as hungry as I have ever been."
Gordon will try to prove it today in the Coca-Cola 600, a race he has won three times before but not since 1998.
He'll start 13th -- a full 10 spots behind teammate Jimmie Johnson, who will be seeking his fourth consecutive win in this race and is the overwhelming favorite to win. Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield are on the front row.
But Gordon can never be counted out, especially at Lowe's Motor Speedway, where he scored the first of his 73 career victories. Only the results have fallen off as of late. Gordon is winless this season, hasn't been to a Victory Lane since he won in Martinsville, Va., last October, and missed last season's Chase for the Championship.
If Gordon was any other driver, it wouldn't be such a big deal.
But Gordon is the one guy who is supposed to contend every single week. He's supposed to battle for the championship every year. He's supposed to be flawless.
When he's not, people talk.
Wallace and Waltrip both weighed in last month in a story in the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record that raised eyebrows across the garage.
"I don't think Jeff is as focused right now as he's been in the past," Wallace said. "I think he's got a lot of other things going on that are a lot of fun to him, a lot of vacationing, a lot of cool places that he's been to around the world and he's really enjoying himself. These race cars take 100 percent of your concentration."
Added Waltrip, "My experience has been is the most successful drivers never wander far away from their race car."
Although Gordon said the comments didn't bother him, he couldn't resist firing back with his own shot at the now-retired Wallace. Car owner Rick Hendrick, who has fielded the No. 24 Chevrolet for Gordon since 1992, took it as proof that Gordon was a little irritated with the remarks.
"I think that hit a nerve with him," Hendrick said while refuting the claims. "I think Jeff's focus is definitely there. I don't see any difference at all in the Jeff Gordon today compared to the Jeff Gordon of four or five years ago."
So then what's the problem?
Gordon doesn't think there is a simple answer. He points to problems at Hendrick Motorsports, which hasn't fully recovered from the 2004 plane crash that killed several key employees, including head engine builder Randy Dorton.
Gordon believes the team has been short on speed, and no matter how good a driver he is, he can't overcome every deficiency in front of him.
"The truth of the matter is we haven't put the package together, and it takes all aspects of it from me, the team, the car, the engineering aspect, to match up with what I need," he said. "We just haven't been able to hit on it -- that's the bottom line.
"We have an issue at Hendrick Motorsports, and I give Jimmie a ton of credit that he's pulled together four wins, and the rest of us have not been able to do that yet."
But with Johnson succeeding -- he's leading the series standings, while Gordon is in sixth, 295 points out -- it raises questions as to why Gordon is not. It also didn't help that Gordon made mistakes in two recent races that prevented him from challenging for the win.
He was in position to win in Talladega, but made two mistakes on the final lap to fall back to 15th. And he lost any shot of running down Greg Biffle in Darlington when he scraped the wall as he passed Matt Kenseth for second place.
Would the Gordon of old have ever made those mistakes? Absolutely, he said.
"I've been making mistakes throughout my whole life, but I still pride myself in that I make less mistakes than most guys," he said. "But I am not going to shy away from them. It happens to everybody. I don't think it is happening anymore than it ever did."
Despite it all, Gordon isn't worried about this year and points to last season when Tony Stewart overcame a slow start to win his second championship.
And as he closes in on his 35th birthday, he's not focusing on what lies ahead for him either. He believes he still has at least one more championship in him, and if he sees the end of the road closing in on him, he isn't admitting it.
But with more than $74 million in career winnings, a yacht, a girlfriend and red carpet functions calling his name, there will certainly come a day when Gordon no longer has the desire to race 36 weekends a year.
Will it happen in the next 10 years? Probably, he said.
"I want to drive as long as I am healthy and I am competitive, and as long as those two things are happening I'll be here," he said. "Will I still be racing in 10 years? Not at this level. Not racing every week at the championship level. But I would like to do the 24 Hours of Daytona, maybe even Le Mans.
"I don't think I would do Indianapolis, but I might. Who knows until you have that time to think about it and focus it? Right now they only thing I am focused on is winning races and competing for championships here."