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Jeff Gordon's drive keys strong start, lofty goals

April 15, 2014, Holly Cain,

Cain: Points leader, four-time premier series champion hungry for fifth title

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For the second consecutive week Jeff Gordon sits atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship standings -- a view he previously hadn't seen since the 2009 season. It's a statistic that seems hard to believe given the future Hall of Famer's history of four championships and 88 Sprint Cup wins.

Maybe that's coming from the perspective of having been there from his Cup beginnings, his low-key, much-mustached debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 -- overshadowed at the time because it was also Richard Petty's farewell.

Maybe it's having witnessed first-hand as he transformed from the sport's "good ol' boy" to "wonder boy" -- as he regularly bettered the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett to hoist four Cup trophies by the age of 30. Maybe it was the tangible feeling season after season for a decade that Gordon won every race.

Here he is at the age of 42, leading the standings for the first time in nearly five years -- a promising position even in a season when win-and-you’re-in is the new championship reality.

That impending retirement everyone else hounds him about? Not yet. Not so fast.

Your championship leader still has some get-up-and-go, thank you.

As Gordon recently told talk show host Larry King, "I love racing. I love the competition and I love being competitive against the competition."

So there's been a lot to love in 2014. Gordon has earned the top ranking driving his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet to six top-10s in eight races. He hasn't finished worse than 13th all year, has completed every lap and led laps in four races.

Yet he's still ticked at runner-up finishes, frustrated with blown tires and mad when the victim of others' bonehead moves.

It's the passion that compelled him to once tussle with Jeff Burton at Texas Motor Speedway on-track in front of a live national television audience and to confront Matt Kenseth on pit road or Tony Stewart in Stewart's team hauler after run-ins on-track.

Gordon may be clean-cut and one of the sports' absolute "nice guys." But he is also fiercely driven, and this is what is propelling him toward a fifth trophy with the urgency of someone intent on capitalizing on opportunity.

"I do this now because I love it, because I like being competitive, and because I want another championship," Gordon said prior to the season-opening Daytona 500.

"I want to get a Sprint Cup championship. I go home, you know, and I look at my trophy room. I see four trophies, championship trophies. But they say Winston Cup on them. You can name me a four-time Sprint Cup champion for technical reasons all you want, but to me I'm still not. I want that before my career's over."

While holding the points lead after the regular season concludes Sept. 6 could potentially earn Gordon a place in the playoff field this fall, he'd prefer to gain a berth by winning a race -- something he's done more than any other driver currently on the Cup starting grid. Only Petty and David Pearson have won more. A certain Hall of Famer, a wealthy man with a wonderful young family and enough years left to bask in the fine life he's created, Gordon doesn't need to race.

He wants to race.

Yet with a 13-year title dry spell and a few grays in his sideburns, he's starting to get more questions about when he'll retire.

"People already have Chase Elliott driving my car," he joked last summer.

The people asking the questions clearly haven't seen the raw and gut-wrenching disappointment visible when Gordon falls short of a win -- no matter how close -- or watched the supreme joy he shows in Victory Lane.

He is the first to tell you, his race style has evolved, matured. He's more cerebral and controlled, less careless and cavalier.

Gordon's raw talent behind the wheel is unquestionable. But it's his great and unique competitive desire that separates champions from contenders, and that will always be the difference.

"It's funny how life serves these things up," Gordon said in his recent interview with King. "You go through a time where you go through a frustrating year, or I had some back and health issues. And I said, 'You know, I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to do this at this level or if I event want to.'

"Then you all of the sudden have this amazing year, and you go, 'God, I love racing. Racing's amazing. I can't wait to do it for another 10 years.' "


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