Jeff Gordon welcomes quick start to new season
January 16, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Jeff Gordon arrived in Daytona Beach, Fla., last week for NASCAR's annual Preseason Thunder test sessions feeling as spry and acting as eager as ever. Twenty-one full-time seasons into his certain Hall of Fame career, he doesn't take anything for granted.
There may have been a time when testing seemed monotonous and unnecessary. But these days, Gordon considers any time on track as a valuable asset. Others may dread the unofficial start to the season -- a mere seven weeks after wrapping up the 2013 season. He couldn't be more ready.
"It's fantastic to be back, the excitement has definitely been building," Gordon said. "I really love getting to the shop and spending time with (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and the engineers every year this time of year. It's exciting to hear all the things that they've been thinking about and creating ways to make you better as a team.
"When we get on the track, I look forward to seeing those results."
Gordon shared that he'd just shaved a 3-week-old beard that he joked was more gray than black. He'd just returned from a European holiday with family traveling through France and his wife Ingrid’s native Belgium.
Judging by the photos he posted on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, the family took in all the great sites: The Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, cafes on the Champs-Elysees and castles in the countryside.
Gordon also included an up-close photograph he took of Leonardo da Vinci’s "Mona Lisa" painting that hangs in the Louvre in Paris. There's that famous hint of a smile -- as if she knows something we don't.
It's not unlike Gordon.
The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion offers a similar smile when asked if at 42 years old, he's contemplating a timeframe to end his great career. He gets the question more frequently, yet his results -- six wins and five pole positions in the last three seasons -- puts him right in the thick of things competitively speaking with his contemporaries. It's proof of his commitment, and that neither his ability nor desire has waned.
The fact he hasn’t won a championship since 2001 while his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson has won six in the last eight years, only feeds Gordon’s determination to win another.
"I feel young at the moment," Gordon said, adding with a laugh, "But when I roll out of the bed in the morning I realize that I'm 42 because I have aches and pain that I didn't have 20 years ago. I’m reminded of my age.
"But when I get to the track, I’m still as passionate and as excited, if not more so, than I've ever been."
Daytona International Speedway has been a particularly prominent venue in his body of work with six wins and three poles. Only Richard Petty (7) and Cale Yarborough (4) have more Daytona 500 wins than Gordon (3). He won the 1999 Daytona 500 from the pole position, something that's only been done nine times since "The Great American Race" was first run in 1959.
He nearly added another pole position to those statistics last year, instead starting on the outside of what was a historic Daytona 500 front row alongside pole winner Danica Patrick.
And good starts are meaningful.
The Feb. 23 Daytona 500 will be significant for Gordon not only because of its distinction as NASCAR’s crown jewel, but because it is the first race of the season.
Gordon believes the Achilles' heel in his championship contention over the past two seasons has been getting off to subpar starts, particularly in 2013 when he had as many finishes outside the top 30 (two) as he did top-10s in the first 10 races.
The slow start -- three finishes of 20th-place or lower in the first four races -- put him in the precarious position of playing catch-up. He made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as the 13th driver, placed in the field by NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France after the controversial regular-season finale at Richmond.
"For me, it’s all about getting off to a better start and really the last two seasons we have not," said Gordon, whose sixth-place finish in the final standings was his best since 2009. "That doesn't mean you've got to go and win the first five races. It just means try and eliminate the 20ths and 25ths and try to put yourself in position to get those top-10s and hopefully turn those into top-fives or wins.
"Get the points, get the momentum and then run with it."
Gordon says the entire team needs to look at improving its setups. As a driver, he plans to work on his restarts and being more aggressive. And, he expects a renewed focus on qualifying better.
"There's many thing that we can do to be better even at our best," Gordon said. "In some ways -- and Alan and I have had conversations about this -- maybe we've been trying to get off to a great start and things didn’t go well and we got a little bit behind on saying, OK, let’s get back to the basics.
"I think we're going to try to blend the basics and some of the new things that we think are going to be successful for us."