BROOKLYN, Mich. -- When Jeff Gordon won for the first time this year, he climbed out of the car, turned to his crew and emphatically shouted, ''We're back!''
That was just over two months ago, and with two more victories in the last three weeks, Gordon again is a dominating force.
''To be competing for a championship right now -- it means more to me to be a part of this team than it ever has,'' he said. ''I can honestly say this is the best it has ever felt.''
The driver once known as The Kid isn't so young anymore. He'll be 30 in August, enabling him to better appreciate his quest for a fourth Winston Cup championship. It took almost two years of struggle for Gordon to work his way back to being a threat to win each week.
He won the last of his championships in 1998, then fell to sixth in the standings when crew chief Ray Evernham left to start his own team. After the 1999 season, most of his heralded pit crew, the Rainbow Warriors, jumped to Dale Jarrett's team.
New crew chief Robbie Loomis came aboard in 2000, and Gordon slumped to ninth in the series standings -- his lowest finish since 1994 -- and won just three times.
''I was really burned out,'' he said. ''This schedule is so hectic. Throw on top of it all the responsibilities of being a champion and there's no doubt it takes a lot out of you.''
But the struggle eventually made him hungrier, and now everything is back on track. He's proven that in the last three races.
He won The Winston, NASCAR's non-points all-star race, in a backup car last month. A pit-road accident relegated him to a 29th-place finish in a very fast car the next week in the Coca-Cola 600.
Then he rebounded to lead 381 of 400 laps Sunday in Dover, Del. He chose not to contest a bonus-points pass by Rusty Wallace early in the race, immediately passed him again, and was out of first thereafter only when he pitted.
It was Gordon's 54th career victory, tying him for seventh place with Wallace and stock car pioneer Lee Petty.
Now, with renewed energy, Gordon heads into this weekend's K-mart 400 in second place, just 50 points behind Jarrett. Last year, Gordon was 10th, 340 points behind Bobby Labonte.
''It was awful tough to go through those tough times and face the criticism and the doubts that everyone has,'' he said. ''So to finally have it clicking and get it together and finally get a team back out there winning races and battling for the championship, it's very gratifying.''
Loomis and the rest of the crew first sensed it from Gordon back in March, when he scored his first win of the year in Las Vegas.
''I'll never forget it, he got out of the car and screamed,'' Loomis said. ''It was the most affirmative show of support he'd ever given this team and it made us think we really are going to be on this year.''
Loomis, who started as a crew chief in 1991 with seven-time champion Richard Petty as the driver, also has sensed a new confidence in Gordon as well as a new appreciation for the three titles he won with Evernham.
''Now that Jeff is 29, I think he's at the point where he's really starting to appreciate the things he has and the things he wants,'' Loomis said. ''I think when he looks in the mirror, he's starting to see a really good driver.
''During his championships, I think maybe he looked in the mirror and saw Hendrick Motorsports, Ray Evernham, a good car, good motors and a good crew. Now what he sees back is how important he really is to the process.''
Others also see how important Gordon and his resurgence are to NASCAR's success.
Petty, the NASCAR pacesetter with 200 victories, says the death in February of Dale Earnhardt, has left a void in the sport.
''Gordon was like Earnhardt, it's a love-hate deal,'' Petty said. ''The people that didn't like Earnhardt or his ways of doing things, they could go with Gordon because Gordon is the smooth part of everything that was the rough part about Earnhardt.''
Petty also thinks someone is needed to carry the sport the way he did before seven-time champion Earnhardt became its superstar.
''When I came along there really wasn't a bad guy in the crowd and it worked,'' Petty said. ''I took it from one level and put it in another level. Earnhardt picked it up from there.''
Petty has no problem figuring out who should carry on now.
''To me, Gordon, is the head honcho,'' The King said.
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