Friendly venues await Gordon

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   For the driver who has become synonymous with the word winner, Jeff Gordon's 2002 numbers have been, well, un-Gordon like. Through four races this year, the four-time NASCAR champ is 11th place in the point standings 129 markers back of first place with no wins and no top five finishes.
   In fact, he hasn't been to victory lane since last September at Kansas. However, with two of his best tracks, Darlington and Bristol, coming up next on the schedule, the defending Winston Cup champion is confident things will turn around soon.
   "I'm looking forward to it," Gordon admitted while testing at BMS on Monday. "It's been a rough couple of weeks. We had a couple of top tens the first two races, but we haven't been able to show our full potential. We had another top ten going this weekend and we just weren't able to capitalize on it because of engine trouble.
   "Since things haven't been going our way, I'm looking forward to going to some tracks where I know we can shine at. We've got to qualify better and two tracks that we qualify well at are Darlington and Bristol."
   The Boca Raton, Fla. resident insisted NASCAR's new one-engine rule had no bearing on problems that relegated him to a 16th-place finish at the series' most recent race in Atlanta. "What happened to us, didn't have anything to do with the rule," said Gordon. "It's a problem that we have seen in the past. It's something we're still trying to work out the bugs on. I like the rule. I think that in the long run it will be better.
   "Our engine department has confidence in building good qualifying motors that are also good race motors and should have no problem making a 500-mile race, a 600-mile at Charlotte maybe. That might be a little different, but other than that, I don't see a problem with that."
   Gordon has seen a transformation in recent years going from the new leadfooted sensation to one of the garage area's most respected veterans.
   "I'm 30 and I'm getting old," Gordon joked. "I feel like I'm driving the best I ever have. These young guys will push you a little harder and make you step up the program. It's just like any other major sport. You're seeing younger, more talented teams.
   "The sponsors want to see someone other battling for wins and aggressive, at least to have that potential. The car owners are taking more risks because they think there will be bigger gains in the long run. I'm happy to see that, because that is what Rick Hendrick did when I was 21 years old and it certainly paid off for me."
   Gordon is one of those risk takers. He embarked on a new career as a car owner along with Hendrick, fielding cars for rookie Jimmie Johnson. Currently, Johnson is coming off a career best third place finish in Atlanta and is one point ahead of his boss in the NASCAR standings to occupy the tenth position.
   "I'm so proud of these guys," said Gordon about the Lowe's team. "It's going better than I ever expected. I knew that they would do well, but I thought it would take longer for them to get their first top five and top ten. It's an incredible start."
   Johnson, whose background consists primarily of off-road racing, had only a handful of wins in stock car competition before this season. Yet, Gordon showed he not only can wheel a mean ride, but also has a knack for spotting talent. After penciling in Johnson for the No. 48, the rookie repaid Jeff by leading pre-season testing at Daytona and then winning the pole for the Daytona 500.
   "When you are out there driving against guys and you have an idea of what their equipment is, you see what they are getting out of the equipment," said Gordon. "When you sit down and talk to that individual it tells you, 'If I can get this guy in the same equipment that I've got, we can see him shine.' If you have the talent and the other abilities, then you're going to see results.
   "He works well with sponsors and he's a real down-to-earth likable guy. He's sharp, uses his head and works well with people. He's got all the qualities that I look for as a car owner."
   Jeff wanted to put an early end to questions that being an owner is a distraction from his driving. "When it was all being put together with the structure and getting the sponsorship last year was when most of my time was taken up," said the driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet. "Now that everything is in place, it runs itself. I haven't had to do much other than be a teammate (at Hendrick Motorsports) to Jimmy, just like I am with Jerry (Nadeau) and Terry (Labonte)."
   Monday's day of testing, while providing valuable information didn't offer the ideal track conditions. "When the track is clean like this, it's really, really fast," Gordon explained. "So you can't put too much into speeds. We have to put more into feel and information on what the car is doing. When we make a change, we have to see how it reacts."
   One change it's likely Jeff Gordon will be making, is a return trip to the winners circle. His 58 wins in nine years on the Winston Cup tour give him the second highest winning percentage of all-time and already has him ranked 7th on NASCAR's all-time win list.
   He wouldn't mind to have another trophy from BMS added to those totals, one preferably in the track's new victory lane located atop a new media center in turn three. "Some of the most awesome trophies I've got are Bristol trophies," said Gordon. "So, I've got plenty of memories and hardware to take with me from Bristol. But, I'd like to check out the new victory lane. The old one was great, but I like the new one."