[EDNOTE]ATLANTA Jeff Gordon hasn't been oblivious to the rumors and criticism about his slow start in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series season. In fact, he agrees with most of it.[EDNOTE]
ATLANTA Jeff Gordon hasn't been oblivious to the rumors and criticism about his slow start in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series season. In fact, he agrees with most of it.
In the past couple years Gordon has made more headlines with his divorce, a high-profile model for a girlfriend and his lack of domination in stock car racing. And when he started the 2004 campaign with no top-five finishes in his first six races, he joined the chorus.
"No (the criticism) doesn't surprise me because we set the bar," Gordon said. "We've set those expectations by the number of wins and championships and seasons we've had. We know where our focus is, but we also know we haven't lived up to our potential."
The four-time series champion has won six races in the last two years a time when his personal life became a national obsession. He admitted a year ago his divorce and the attention it received in the tabloids was a distraction in 2002, but there wasn't much improvement in 2003. He won three races in each season and finished fourth in the national standings well off his pace of 56 victories and four championships in a year run that ended four months before his wife filed for divorce.
Much like Tiger Woods in golf, when Gordon doesn't dominate and win the championship, it leaves people wondering what's wrong.
"Every year has gotten tougher," he said. "Teams and drivers get chemistry. They get a connection and build on that.
"I think it's more competitive today for a couple of different reasons. One is that people have gotten more involved with the technology, engineering and computers. That's closed the gap tremendously. (Second), the cars are a lot different to drive today than they used to be. Track position is extremely important. If you don't have it through qualifying, you'd better get it through pit stops. Or you better find a way to get that track position and hold onto it. Because of that, pit strategy it different. Younger guys who are aggressive have been able to qualify up front or get that track position and maintain it. It's a lot harder to pass these days. I can remember that if we did have trouble, we could always find a way to get back. That seems to be a lot tougher to do these days. Fewer mistakes can be made."
Gordon found some old magic during last week's race at the Texas Motor Speedway. Pit strategy kept him from going a lap down during an early round of green-flag stops and he used that track position to lead the race for 46 laps until his battery failed with 27 laps to go. He turned all the electrical switches off in his car to save power, but he lost the race in the process. His third-place finish, however, was his best of the season.
"We finally showed this past week at Texas what we're capable of and that we're going to challenge for wins," he said. "Outsiders are quick to judge. It's a long season. We haven't gotten off to the season we've wanted either, but we are happy to get some momentum from Texas and take it to a great track like Martinsville."
The Nextel Cup Series is off this week. It returns to the half-mile bullring at Martinsville, Va. a track where Gordon swept both races last year.
The new Chase for the Championship put a premium on fast starts since the top 10 drivers after 26 races and anyone within 400 points of the lead are eligible to win the championship during the final 10 races. Gordon said while the way NASCAR will crown its champion is different, the way to win a championship will never change.
"Right now I can't say we're looking at it a whole lot differently because basically it's about being consistent," he said. "Everybody is out there trying to win races and so are we. But we know come Richmond (the 26th race), we've got to be in that top 10. When we are (in the top 10), we better be set on kill to go out there and lead laps and win races and you're going to have to have top-fives every single weekend and have a lot of luck in order to win that championship. Two or three months from now everything is going to change for everybody."
Jeff Gordon hopes so.
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