Gordon looks back on a time when he lost some confidence only to regain it quickly
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nearly a dozen years removed from his most recent championship, Jeff Gordon understands all too well what it’s like to suddenly feel vulnerable.
“Absolutely,” the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion said Wednesday, citing a disappointing 2000 season as a prime example.
“A year,” he said, “that really stands out in my mind of a year that I lost confidence.”
To be sure, Gordon never completely lost the feeling that he could continue to contend for, and win, races and Cup titles. Still, it was an unsettling time, and the possibility that what had been a dominating run on the asphalt ovals across America was on the wane was all too real.
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“When it has usually happened for me is when big transitions happen with the sport,” Gordon, 41, said during the Hendrick Motorsports portion of this year’s Sprint Media Tour. “Whether it be tires, setups (or) aerodynamics. What I remember so vividly about 2000, that was when big rear springs started to come into play. The cars weren’t just moving as much. They were more rigid; (they) had more downforce, but it just didn’t feel right to me. So until somebody else started proving to me that it worked, my mind mentally just couldn’t get around it.”
That he won three races and finished ninth in points that season might not seem like cause for alarm. Multiple wins and a top-10 finish in points? That’s is cause for celebration in a lot of shops.
For Gordon, who had won Cup titles in 1995, ’97 and ’98, it was frustration intensified by uncertainty. Success creates higher standards.
Having won seven or more races for five consecutive seasons, including a ’98 effort that saw him tie the modern-day record with 13, Gordon and his team were clearly the class of the field. The bar had been raised. And all of a sudden, the bar seemed out of reach.
“It’s not so much confidence -- at that point the car doesn’t feel the way I want it to feel,” he said. “So you’re a little frustrated, you’re not competitive, your teammates are running good and then you lose confidence if that happens consistently.”
Crew chief Ray Evernham, with whom Gordon had won all three of his titles, had departed before the end of the previous season, and Brian Whitesell stepped in to finish out the year atop the pit box. Robbie Loomis was Gordon’s crew chief when the curtain rose the following year.
Fortunately for Gordon and his team, as the year progressed and he became accustomed to the new feel of the car, his results improved. So much so that he finished the season with 10 top-10s in the final 11 races. The end wasn’t in sight after all -- at least not yet.
The turnaround continued into the ’01 season, and as a result, Gordon clinched his fourth Sprint Cup title, bypassing NASCAR legends, and three-time champions, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.
It was those struggles that played a large role in his team’s climb back to the top, Gordon said, and in the end made both himself and his team better.
“Some guys come into the sport and never get (that confidence),” Gordon said. “Some guys get it and it fades and they never get it back. I’ve been fortunate to where it has had its ups and downs and to me that’s one of the most important things.“
A visit to the HMS complex by Virginia Tech head football coach Frank Beamer on Tuesday reinforced the importance of confidence, as well as the importance of loyalty and a belief in one another in a team sport.
“To me that’s always huge,” Gordon said. “You’ve got to have smart people that surround you –- they feel like they have to have a talented race car driver -- but when you’re tested, go through the tough times, if they don’t really truly believe in you, what you bring to the table, or vice versa, you’re never going to find that confidence that it takes to win.”
Winning has become more difficult and perhaps that’s why each victory now is special. Such was the case as the 2012 season came to a close, and found Gordon back in the winner’s circle.
To say that it was career win No. 87 –- only two other drivers have won more often -- would be to miss the big picture.
“To end the season like that, as well as have my kids there, my wife Ingrid, and the team, as hard as they worked and as much as we went through last year, nothing felt better than that,” he said.
“You savor those moments, you appreciate those moments, at least I do, more today than I ever have in the past.”