Gordon Seems Back on Track in Chase

Saturday, September 30th 2006, 7:00 am
By: News On 6

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) _ Wait until the last split-second, then stomp on the brake pedal to slow down for the turn. Snap the steering wheel to the left, mash the gas and blast down the straightaway. It's a driving style that might work for young drivers, but not for Jeff Gordon.

Gordon is a little smoother, easing on and off the gas and babying his brakes. Driving that way has won him four NASCAR championships, but it wasn't working for him last year.

``I can't change how I drive,'' Gordon said. ``I tried that. It doesn't work.''

Gordon hasn't changed his style this season, though he is getting better results.

After failing to qualify for NASCAR's postseason-style Chase for the Nextel Cup championship format in 2005, Gordon is now second in the standings, only six points behind leader Jeff Burton.

A key to Gordon's turnaround: Significant improvement at intermediate-length tracks such as Kansas, one of the No. 24 team's major stumbling blocks last season.

A year ago, Gordon was left in the dust by his teammates on a regular basis. They were all driving similar cars. So the problem must have been the guy in the driver's seat, right?

``My teammates were doing things, and they were working for them and they were running good,'' Gordon said. ``And we were trying the same things, and they weren't working. So all of a sudden, now it must be the driver.''

In a sense, it was.

Although Gordon insists he never lost his focus on racing _ a popular line of criticism of the four-time NASCAR champion over the past year _ he does admit he struggled to adapt to changes in the sport.

NASCAR officials set the sport's technical rules to make cars fairly equal, so the difference between winning and finishing 15th often can be found in the way a driver works with his crew to figure out which suspension adjustments will make his car handle properly.

And these days, team engineers play a bigger role than a driver's seat-of-the-pants feel in determining which suspension adjustments will make the car perform best.

That's not a problem for young drivers, who don't really know what their car is supposed to feel like in the first place. But Gordon and other veterans have struggled to drive the way the engineers say they're supposed to.

So Gordon and his new crew chief, Steve Letarte, started over in a test session at Atlanta Motor Speedway late last season. They eventually settled on a compromise that combines engineers' suggestions and Gordon's comfort.

``We were thinking outside the box, because I just wasn't comfortable with the setups that we were running,'' Gordon said.

Gordon won at Chicagoland Speedway in July, and also ran well in races at Michigan International Speedway and California Speedway.

Matt Kenseth said that after Gordon had so much success early in his career with former crew chief Ray Evernham, it's only natural that he would experience a down cycle in his career.

``Things change in the business,'' Kenseth said. ``Jeff's deal, he could do no wrong when Ray was there back in the day. And when things change, I think it takes a while to get things moving again. It's always been a team sport. It's always been about the team and not necessarily the driver. You can only go as fast as your car will take you.''

Kenseth said it's no surprise that Gordon and his team have straightened things out.

``Obviously he's a four-time champion and he's won the most races and done all that stuff so it never surprises me,'' Kenseth said.

But after his struggles became a major storyline in NASCAR last year, Gordon seems to have crept back near the top of the standings without much fanfare.

``I'm totally fine with that,'' Gordon said. ``I like being a little bit more under the radar. At this point, it seems like every time you jump up there in the points lead, the spotlight's on you and all the pressure's there as well. It's a little bit more comforting being where we're at. We're right in the thick of it, so close, and just consistency's what it's all about for us.''

Gordon credits Letarte, who replaced Robbie Loomis as Gordon's crew chief near the end of last season, with much of the turnaround.

``With such a new crew chief and where we've been the last couple years, I didn't know if it would take a year, it would take two years, how long it was going to take for us to really be championship caliber,'' Gordon said. ``But I can honestly say that we were on the verge of it, then when this Chase started, all of a sudden this team went to a whole 'nother level.''

And if that translates into a fifth championship, Gordon doesn't seem inclined to throw it back in the faces of critics, including former drivers Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace, who questioned his commitment to racing.

``I'm not trying to prove anybody wrong,'' Gordon said. ``I try to really not take things like that personal, because if I did, it would really affect me.''