But he's still tough on the track
Fatherhood has changed Jeff Gordon in the most fundamental way - off the race track.
Ella Sofia Gordon arrived on June 20. Since then, Gordon’s free time, and that of wife Ingrid, has been reallocated.
“I’ve never had so much fun getting so little sleep,” Gordon said with a grin. “It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding to be able to look at her whether she’s sleeping or in my arms or whatever. It melts your heart every time she looks at you. I love being involved, whether its burping or changing diapers or rocking her to sleep. It’s all good.
“I’m so much more appreciative of everything, looking at the world in a totally different way. Actually, it’s made me more excited, more passionate about what I’m doing. I feel there’s a real purpose in it now, where before, I felt it was all about winning.”
Some of what has changed is predictable.
About the only place he hasn’t put a picture of Ella is on the dashboard of his race car. There, Gordon insists there’s no chance of softening, including today in Joliet, where he’s defending his title in the USG Sheetrock 400.
“I’m probably the happiest, most comfortable with my life and who I’ve been than I’ve ever been,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t uncomfortable before; it was not knowing, not having a full understanding of why. As I go through life, I seem to understand things just a little bit better, like all people do as they get older.
“When I started, I wanted to do everything just perfect, say and do all the right things, go out and win every race to make my sponsors, my fans, my team guys happy. I think I kind of lost myself a little bit in that. Going through a seven-year marriage and divorce, winning and not winning championships helped educate me as to what I want out of life.
“When you’re in a competitive sport, your competitive nature comes out regardless of what happens in life. What’s changing is my preparation going into the weekend.”
The track is the 35-year-old Gordon’s office, and it’s where he’s been extremely successful since breaking into the then-Winston Cup Series in the final race of 1992. By 1994, he was winning races, and at Charlotte and Indianapolis, the latter the inaugural Brickyard 400, no less. By 1995, he was a series champion.
He is that four times over now, the last crown coming in 2001, and now in quest of title No. 5, leading the series standings by 277 points. To hear him tell it, this season, with four wins in the first 18 starts, is better than last season, when he won twice, if only because he’s qualifying better.
“I’m driving the best that I can, like I always do, but I’ve got a great team and race cars underneath me that the results are really showing,” Gordon said.
Gordon’s first Cup race 15 years ago was Richard Petty’s last. In image, they’re opposites, Petty coming from a racing family encamped in a small town in the south, Gordon a Californian transplanted to a small town in Indiana when it became obvious he had a prodigal talent for making cars go fast.
Petty won 200 races, many of them in an era when what was called the Grand National Series ran 50 times a season. Gordon’s 79 victories have come on a much shorter schedule. Another 15 years, and a potential 160 wins may be looked on as even more of an achievement.
That, however, assumes Gordon is still in the driver’s seat at 50.
“I remember coming into the sport, and guys like Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt had been in for 15 years, and thinking, ‘Man, those guys are old. I can’t see myself being here 15 years from now.’ ”
“Who knows where I’m going to be at that time,” Gordon laughed.
A major reason for NASCAR’s emergence into the national sports consciousness, Gordon believes the growth of the sport has been for the better.
“I think it’s better because it’s bigger, but you have to know how to manage that,” Gordon said. “You have to be careful not to abuse that, not to take it for granted, and make the best of those opportunities. And 15 years down the road, I think we’re going to see some new tracks, probably see the Cup series in Canada and Mexico. I don’t see us being huge in other parts of the world, but it could happen, maybe in Germany. We tried Japan, and maybe we could give it another shot, but it’s a long way to travel.
“I think we’ll see some more foreign manufacturers, like a BMW, involved. Hey, maybe we’ll have team drivers. I could run half a season and someone else could run the other half. That’s a concept that might work in 15 years.
“We can have enough superstars in the sport by then to pull it off. We’ve got a lot of guys who are in the making of being superstars. But that’s the biggest fear NASCAR has, that everybody won’t be there and fans will miss their stars. And look at golf. They (the PGA Tour) is changing things, because they want Tiger (Woods) in every event.”
Gordon does not mean to sound weary of being behind the wheel, for he is not. He still looks forward to every weekend, as well as to the presence in the Hendrick Motorsports stable next year of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“Years back, Ricky (Hendrick) always wanted to talk to him about driving for his team,” Gordon said. “I think he’s going to be a great teammate. I was more shocked that DEI didn’t keep him, that they didn’t bend more to keep him there. Once he left there I felt Hendrick was a great place for him.”
Earnhardt replaces Kyle Busch on the four-car team in 2008, joining Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears. Some are referring to it as a dream team.
“We all know how dream teams can go down,” Gordon said. “You’ve got to know how to manage, and that’s where we’re going to benefit from Rick’s leadership. It’s how you manage those personalities, and that’s what we’ve done so well at Hendrick Motorsports over the years. There’s no A Team or B Team. We all go out there and do the best. The key, especially over the past few years, is how we communicate with the other drivers, and get along with other team’s crew chiefs.
“That open line of communication can make us all better. We’ve got to introduce (Earnhardt) to that. It’s going to take some time for him to understand how we do things at Hendrick.”
Even if Gordon won’t, call it what he’s going through in the rest of his life: baby steps.
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