Gordon overcomes struggles

Published 12:20 am Sunday, July 22, 2007

Just two years ago, Jeff Gordon and his famed No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team were struggling, his crew chief was on the verge of leaving and doubts were beginning to creep into the mind of the four-time NASCAR champion.

All that is behind him now as Gordon is just past halfway through one of his best seasons yet. And that fifth championship may be there for the taking.

After 19 of 36 races this season, Gordon has four wins — tied with teammate Jimmie Johnson for the most in the Nextel Cup series — 12 top fives, 17 top 10s and has been leading the points since Bristol, the fifth race of the season.

Not even being docked 100 points by NASCAR after his team was caught with unapproved front fenders last month at Sonoma has slowed him down. Enjoying a rare weekend off for the Cup series, Gordon leads runner-up Denny Hamlin by 303 points.

That’s a long way from where Gordon and his team were midway through the 2005 season.

After finishing no worse than ninth — and posting eight top-four finishes, including all four of his championships — during the previous 11 seasons, Gordon slipped to 11th in the points that year. He started strong, winning three of the first nine races, but was barely competitive with the top teams the rest of the way.

Late in the season, Robbie Loomis, who was Gordon’s crew chief for his fourth title in 2001, left to rejoin Petty Enterprises.

Longtime team member Steve Letarte was promoted to crew chief and worked with Gordon through the final 10 races of 2005, trying to get their magic back.

Gordon acknowledges he wondered at times if his skills had slipped.

“Sometimes you wonder, ’OK, have I gotten the best out of my career? Do I not have maybe what some of these other young guys have? Am I not pushing hard enough? What is it?’

“But there’s also that little bit inside there of confidence, of winning four championships and winning 70-plus races that you’re constantly searching to try to get that back and get that feel that you’re looking for,” Gordon said. “I think what happened to us is we got a little bit off on our game. (So) we started focusing on what was working at Hendrick so well with Jimmie and the other teams that we said ’Well maybe we need to do that to go faster.’ “

The chemistry between Gordon and Letarte, who is halfway through a six-race suspension for the Sonoma violation, was almost instantaneous.

“I’ve been around the Hendrick team for a long time and Jeff and I were already friends,” Letarte said. “It was just a matter of learning what works for both of us and continuing to develop the communication.

“Working with a driver that has Jeff Gordon’s talent is a privilege. Getting him back up front was just a matter of giving him what he needed to go fast.”

One thing that has worked particularly well for the Gordon-Letarte combination is figuring out how to get the most out of Gordon’s driving style with the ever-evolving cars and constantly changing tires.

“You’ll hear some guys say they drive off the right rear (tire) and some guys drive off the right front,” Gordon said. “So, when you see your teammate running really fast (and) doing well, then you go ’Well just put what he has in’ and that doesn’t always work and that’s what I think we really started to learn just before Robbie left and when Steve came in.

“Jimmie’s car is set up looser and it’s just because that’s the way he drives it. I can make my car tighter and still go just as fast and, this year, I think we’ve been able to prove that and that’s why we focus on what’s working for us and using the general information from all the other teams that they’re learning to go faster and make the cars better and applying it to our setups and my driving style.”

While his big lead will melt away with the start of NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the championship in September, Gordon is confident that he and his team can carry their momentum to the end.

“I think that we just try to always find the areas that we can be better, whether it’s the performance of the cars, whether it’s our pit crew, whether it’s a feel that I’m looking for or something that I’m doing as a driver,” Gordon said. “And I think, most of all, it’s just great communication with a lot of great people that have stepped up and brought a great chemistry within this team onto the race week in and week out.”