NEW YORK -- Jeff Gordon is the champion of stock car racing, and for the first time in nearly a year, everything finally seems to make sense in the sport.
A year that started with Dale Earnhardt's death in the first race was marked by months of questions and turmoil as NASCAR grappled with safety issues and its ability to rule the sport.
It finally ended a week ago with the kind of finish that was expected all along: Jeff Gordon on top.
Earnhardt's death, rock-hard tires, the new Dodge Intrepid and new races at Kansas and Chicago were distractions, but they did nothing to derail Gordon's fourth championship drive in the past seven years.
He won the most races (six), had the most top-five finishes (18), had the most top-10 finishes (24) and earned the most money ($6,085,352). By the time he collects the rest of his bounty Friday at the NASCAR Awards Banquet, the money total will push closer to the $11 million mark.
Gordon wasn't on the speedway when Earnhardt's Chevrolet veered to the right on the final lap then hit the fourth turn wall head-on. He crashed 22 laps earlier and finished 30th.
From there, his push up the standings was relentless.
He had top-five finishes in five of the next six races, and his position as the man to beat was solidified during a four-race stretch that started June 3 at Dover, Del., and ended June 24 at Sonoma, Calif. He led the most laps in all four races and posted two victories, a second and a third.
''This has been one of the most fun years I've ever had,'' Gordon said. ''There's a lot of hard work and dedication and sacrifice that goes into winning a championship. It's very gratifying to see it all come together. I've been able to enjoy this one maybe more than any of the others. Maybe it was because I was going for the fourth one, and I knew I had three. You knew just how to relax and enjoy it along the way.''
Gordon has been in New York all week doing the things champions do. He visited with the mayor, visited the World Trade Center cleanup site and made a donation to the relief effort through his own foundation. They took pictures at Times Square, and he will sit at the head table Friday at the posh Waldorf-Astoria for the banquet.
He's also made appearances on NBC's Today Show, Live with Regis and Kelly and The Late Show with David Letterman.
''Each day it sinks in a bit more, and you get more and more excited about it,'' he said. ''It's an awesome accomplishment. This championship reminds me of '95 (when he won his first championship)."
At the same time, Gordon understands his championship season forever will be remembered for tragedy. Earn hardt's death, along with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, cast a pall on the season that will never go away.
''If anything, those situations tried to get my mind off racing and off of the championship because you realize how important life is and how important our families and friends are,'' he said. ''You have to live day to day without knowing what the future has in store for you.
''With that in mind, you have to capitalize on the moment. For me, it's capitalizing on this year and this championship and going out there and winning races. First and foremost is remembering and think about the people that are close to you and that you care about.''
At 30, Gordon is primed to win more races and more championships.
Richard Petty and Earnhardt are the only drivers to win more championships, but their seven titles now seem well within reach.
''Winning four championships, no matter what age you are, is mind-boggling,'' Gordon said.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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