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Saturday, January 25, 2003
Gordon aiming to improve from 2002

By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- If there was ever a season that more clearly showed the disparity between Jeff Gordon and other Winston Cup drivers, it was 2002.

While most drivers would be elated to finish fourth in the standings, many critics thought Gordon suffered through an off-year -- an un-Gordon-like season.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon aims to bounce back from a "disappointing" fourth-place finish in the points in 2002.

That just shows the high standard Gordon has established, not to mention the baseline he's laid down with four championships in the past 10 years. People expect him to be the champion every season.

When Gordon went 30 starts without a win, it brought out cries that he was too distracted by controversy in his private life, primarily from his divorce battle with wife Brooke. Gordon quickly discounted that talk, saying it was more a matter of how stiff the competition had become.

That said, it left Gordon and the rest of the No. 24 team scrambling to play catch-up for most of the first half of the season, before Gordon finally put things together and snapped the slump at Bristol, Tenn., by pushing Rusty Wallace out of the way and taking the checkered flag.

But that was then, and this is now.

Gordon begins his second full decade as a Winston Cup driver at the still-young age of 31, prepared not only to shake off last season's distractions, but to knock Tony Stewart from his champion's throne and win his fifth title.

"I want to win the championship every year," Gordon said. "And, we go into every year with the confidence that we can win the championship. This organization here, the resources and people we have, are too good to not realistically go out and win a championship every year.

"Right now, we're feeling like we've got a new race car, we've made a few changes in personnel on the team and pit crew, the engine department is making good power, the cars are showing up great in the wind tunnel, so we're pretty much on keel right now, until about 10 races into the season when we'll know what we've really got. Right now, we feel like we're as good as anybody."

Last year may have been the start of a new attitude for Gordon. Up to then, he had pretty much established a reputation as a gentleman, one of the cleanest guys on the track. But after several skirmishes in 2002, Gordon appears to be evolving. He's still a good guy, but definitely with a new mean streak.

"I've always tried to say I don't ever want to be a driver that's looked upon in any one way," Gordon said. "I like surprises, and I like to surprise other guys. There's times where you need to be patient and smooth, and there's other times when you have to be aggressive and mean. I always kind of like to keep the other guys guessing and sometimes play the good guy and sometimes play the villain."

Wallace certainly hasn't forgotten the Bristol incident.

"Oh believe me, I won't forget it," he said emphatically, almost as a precursor to yet another battle with Gordon, perhaps as early as the season opener at Daytona in less than three weeks.

To that, Gordon assumes his former Mr. Nice Guy personality -- but with an edge we have not seen in previous years.

"We laugh about it all the time," Gordon said of his relationship with Wallace. "It's funny, we make fun of the whole situation, and then we go out and knock the heck out of one another. I don't know if it's just entertainment or we just happen to be around one another, we touch and then we get mad at each other. It's hard to say.

"I think Rusty and I are two guys that know how to do that on the track and not let it carry over off the racetrack. He did that same thing with Earnhardt, although he and Earnhardt were good buddies. I respect Rusty tremendously and have become friends with him, also, so we laugh about what happens on the racetrack. There's a point where you can take it too far. We're always going to battle with one another. Hopefully, it won't be taking one another out on the racetrack, but more just hard racing and battling for wins."

Gordon immediately flashes back to his last run-in with Wallace, in last season's finale at Homestead, Fla.

"He got me (bumped him early in the race) and I was going after him," Gordon said. "I didn't get to him, but I still managed to pass and finish ahead of him. I don't know who owes who what. We're not really gunning for one another, but then when we were racing for one another and we touched, it started all over again. So, I'm sure that when we get to Daytona and me and him touch, I'm sure it'll be game on."

Even so, Gordon laughs about the rivalry that has developed between Wallace and himself.

"If you ask my crew chief (Robbie Loomis), he'll say anytime that 2 car is around me, I pick up two- or three-tenths (of a second in speed)," Gordon said. "There are a lot of motivators out there, and it's whoever's fast, or whoever the guy to beat is."

Despite the divorce battle, Gordon is trying to block out any distractions this season.

This past year was one of the strangest years I've ever seen, where nobody really wanted to take off and run with it, and it was still wide open for five guys to win that championship. To me, it was exciting but also very frustrating that there never was any of the five guys who never could get a grasp on it
Jeff Gordon

"I feel really good about the way things are going on in my life both on the racetrack and off the racetrack," he said. "I feel like I've put a lot into racing for so many years, and I never really got much back out of it other than what you see in numbers and statistics. I think there's a lot more to it than that, and all I want is to be able to say, 'Wow, look at what I've accomplished, and I've been able to enjoy every moment of it.' I feel like I'm able to do that much more today than I ever was.

"When you accomplish something, like a win, I feel like I'm just able to think about it more, what the accomplishment was. Even if you look at this past year and all the struggles we went through, when we finally did win, it was like winning for the first time. That meant so much to me and meant so much for me to be able to share it with my family, my friends, my teammates, with the people that all made it happen. It got to the point where after we won a race, I'd be on an airplane as soon as I could get on it and go home. And then it was just on to the next thing the next day."

Gordon enters the 2003 believing he is just now entering his prime. If that's the case, it's good news for Gordon and bad news for his competitors.

When asked if he thinks his peak is still in his future, Gordon replies quite adamantly.

"I hope so," he said. "I know for a fact that I'm a much smarter race car driver than I ever was when I won my first championship. From that side of it, I know I'm a better race car driver. Talent-wise, I feel like because I know the cars so well and the racetracks so well, that I'm better there, too. And even communication-wise, I'm better than I ever have been. I certainly don't feel I've already reached my peak.

"I think there's still room for that. But, I'm also realistic, I know what wins races and championships, and it's the whole package, having people around you that believe in you and you believing in them, plus having a car that's capable of being out there winning. And, the driver certainly has to play his part, and I feel like I'm able to do that today."

Gordon, however, would not be surprised if 2003 starts of the same way last season did. Whereas Gordon used to be one of the most dominating drivers on the circuit, he's now just one of any number of drivers who can step up to the plate and hit a grand slam. All one needs is to look at last year's stats, with 18 different winners over the course of the 36-race schedule, to see the parity that has evolved in NASCAR.

As a result, Gordon's best days -- and most dominating ones -- may be behind him, but that does not mean he's going to be happy with another fourth-place finish. Gordon wants more championships, and he's going to keep fighting to give himself even the slightest edge over the next guy.

"This past year was one of the strangest years I've ever seen, where nobody really wanted to take off and run with it, and it was still wide open for five guys to win that championship," Gordon said. "To me, it was exciting but also very frustrating that there never was any of the five guys who never could get a grasp on it.

"I think each year is going to get more and more closer. I think the cars are as equal as they've ever been, and I think you're going to see any number of guys (as champions). I really don't think I could pick a guy right now, and usually there's four or five teams where I could say (they had the best shot). To me, it's more so than just the driver, it's the whole package and the whole team. It's usually four or five guys, but over the last couple of years that number has grown to seven or eight or maybe even 10."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.