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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Updated: November 5, 3:14 PM ET
Gordon's using 2008 to set the table for another title run in 2009

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

Jeff Gordon
Some question whether family man Jeff Gordon's heart is still in the sport. Nonsense, says Jeff Burton.

I spent the weekend in the First Turn reserved campground at Atlanta Motor Speedway, slumbering like a sardine with eight in-laws in a beer-packed motor home I drove to Georgia from Charlotte in what would classify as a midsummer Midwest tornado.

Downtown Atlanta was dicey, like Level 10 on Frogger, cars shooting across five lanes of traffic in an effort to get to the Golden Corral buffet 2.6 seconds quicker.

I now have an idea what a tight race car feels like. It was so windy I was steering left into the current. The center of gravity on that beast is like a teepee. I told Jimmie Johnson about it, and he said I now have an idea what it's like to drive the COT. Funny.

D2D returns this week, after a week on the bench in favor of some hellaciously great Chad Knaus analysis from his contemporaries. Folks dug it, though somewhat like Lou Brown dug Willie Mays Hayes' basket catch in "Major League:" "Nice catch, Hayes. Don't ever f------ do it again."

On to the Six.

Marty,

I am a huge Jeff Gordon fan. I really thought last season he would succeed in his drive for the fifth championship. Virtually everything he touched turned to gold, but the championship slipped through his fingers.

This year, it's like he and Steve cannot figure out the fine-tuning of the handling of the car and the last adjustment to make to help him win races. I thought he would finally win at either Talladega or Martinsville.

Do you see JG winning this year? Do you see him making a serious run at that fifth championship in 2009? Love your columns and reading the questions from the "Six" every week.

-- Denise, Jacksonville, Fla.

I got a new perspective on Jeff Gordon at Atlanta last weekend, Denise. My man Chase Thompson, an ESPN feature producer, is working on a piece for "NASCAR Now" about the best active driver who has yet to win a title. Cool idea, for which I was charged with asking the driving corps for perspective.

In doing so, many drivers jumped the gun on my question, thinking I was preparing to ask who the best driver is in the field. Half the question left my tongue, and they'd cut me off and say "Jeff Gordon." Seriously, it happened about five times.

I always knew Gordon was very good, but for whatever reason never realized the respect he has among his peers. He is the best in the eyes of his contemporaries. And he leaves no question who he wants directing his ship.

"I want Steve Letarte," Gordon said last weekend. "Steve Letarte is a great crew chief, and the reason why I like him is because he understands, he's very driven, he puts a lot of things in perspective and he's great with the cars and the team as a leader.

"I know he's been getting a bad rap this year, but you got to remember he's the same guy that led us to an almost championship last season."

Jeff Gordon/Steve Letarte
Jeff Gordon says he has complete confidence in his crew chief, Steve Letarte.

Partnerships like Gordon had with Ray Evernham and like Jimmie Johnson has with Knaus are rare, and therefore stand out, Gordon said. One of the biggest challenges experienced drivers and crew chiefs face is evolution. When a guy finds a consistent approach that works for years, it's damn hard to suddenly move in a different direction.

In racing, it may not be broke, but you may need to fix it anyway.

"As you gain experience and have success, then your idea of what you need becomes very narrowed down, and you have a good idea of what it takes and what it doesn't take," Gordon said.

"Like for me and Ray, we started to butt heads a little bit on that, because he pretty much wanted to do things the way he always had and I just didn't feel like that's what I needed. Good or bad, it sort of drove us apart."

That's where Gordon is struggling now -- adaptation. Gordon communicates well with Letarte. That's not the issue. The issue, Gordon said, is the new car. What it wants is 180 degrees from what the old car needed. Gordon is learning.

"Engineering and everything has just changed a lot of things today," Gordon said. "The biggest challenge that I have today, for somebody who has been in this sport for 16 years, is that today's car and adjustments is completely different than what it used to be.

"It used to be you put a bigger right front spring in the car and it made the car tighter or more comfortable getting into the corner. Now it does the exact opposite. All those things are things that I have to now take that knowledge and block out of my head and erase it, and that's hard to do.

"So it takes a crew chief that's got to pound that into your head and steer that ship with confidence."

Letarte is that man. Gordon does not waiver in that sentiment.

I've heard some folks question Gordon's gumption now that he has Warren Buffett money, a supermodel bride and a precious daughter. That criticism obviously irks Gordon. He facetiously mentioned it while addressing the media at Atlanta. I'll let Jeff Burton address those folks. (Buckle up, this quote is "War and Peace," but it's worth the commitment).

"First of all, if anybody believes that Jeff Gordon forgot how to drive, they've lost their mind," Burton said. "If anybody believes that Jeff Gordon still doesn't want to win they've lost their mind. The media and the fans are really quick to give credit to the driver when things are going well. 'That guy is a great driver, he can do this and he can do that.' Two years later they are always saying, 'Well, that guy, he's not as good anymore.'

"Jeff Gordon hasn't forgot how to win races, he hasn't forgot how to race. A lot of people are [saying], 'Well, he had a kid' -- it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life. You had a kid and you don't care anymore. Do you think if you have a kid you just wake up one morning and say, 'Well, I don't care anymore'? 'I've got a kid and I've got a child and I love my child so I don't need a trophy anymore.' Competitive people don't work like that.

"That's why when George Foreman retired he came back. It's why when Michael Jordan retired he came back. It's because you have it in you. Jeff Gordon didn't wake up the day his baby was born and look at the baby and say 'Well, my life is all changed. Now I don't need to race anymore.' It doesn't work like that.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
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"Does it work like that for anybody in here? Race car drivers are no different than anybody else. I think it's absurd that people think you can't have a family life, care about your children and care about your wife and not be competitive. I think that's absurd."

There you have it. The Mayor has spoken. (Can you tell this topic hits a nerve with Burton? He's been called a has-been before, too.)

Do I think Gordon will win this year? No. I don't. Phoenix is his best chance. He had a great car Sunday at Atlanta, and the 24 is gaining on it. It has taken an entire season, but they're improving on high-speed, high-downforce tracks. But Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson are too strong on those tracks.

The thing about Gordon is expectation. His fans are his fans for one reason: because he wins so much. He has created a standard for himself that would seem unattainable if he hadn't already attained it. His fans expect nothing less than excellence. Seriously, he should win every week. I hear it from my 90-year-old great-aunt Dorothy every time I chat with her. "What's wrong with Jeff Gordon, Marty?"

Uh. Nothing, ma'am.

"You lose a lot more than you win in this sport, so it's easier to get used to that fight and that mindset of what you have to do to try to celebrate in Victory Lane at the end of the day, or have a finish that you're really excited and proud of when you leave here," Gordon said. "That's your goal every weekend. You just don't win as often. I know I've won a lot in this series, but I've lost a heck of a lot more.

"Not that you want to get used to that, but you have to know how to adjust to it. It's just part of racing. That's just the way racing works. You learn from every experience -- the good ones, the bad ones. To me, this season does remind me of a couple of seasons that I remember, but probably 2005 or 2006 more than anything, just because we haven't had a terrible year.

"It's been a pretty good year, but it's not a great year and we're not a factor for the championship and we've just come on very late in getting things where we needed to be. So we are obviously trying to win races and focus on what we can do to improve the performance every weekend, but we're also trying to get momentum to carry into the offseason for next season."

And if he doesn't win a race?

"I have no problem coming out of this season without a win if I think it can contribute to us going and winning five or more races next year and being a threat for the championship," he said. "I will have no issues with not winning this year."

That can happen.

I think it will happen.

Few folks are as competitive as Jeff Gordon. Tell him he can't do something and watch out.

Gordon will contend again in 2009.

Song of the Week: "Main Street" -- Bob Seger. I forgot I had that song until my brothers-in-law and I were playing ladder golf late last Friday night. That song hit the speakers and we all stopped and sang. Awesome jam.

Hey Marty,

With qualifying rained out last weekend -- again! -- don't you think that it's time NASCAR considered having the option to let drivers qualify on Saturday morning if Friday's qualifying session is rained out? What else is going on at the track early on a Saturday morning?

After all, it wasn't very long ago when NASCAR held two-part qualifying sessions on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Has there been any discussion in the garage about changes to the qualifying procedure?

I think that NASCAR should at least allow the go-or-go-home teams the opportunity to qualify on Saturday morning if it rains on Friday. Thanks for your time, and keep up the great work!

-- Daniel Shickel, Blacksburg, Va.

Certainly, 10 rainouts in 33 races is asinine, Daniel. But it's not NASCAR's fault.

And while drivers outside the top 35 who fail to make the show are slighted, those locked in -- especially those in the midst of a championship battle -- say the current way is the best way.

Why? Practice.

(Practice? We talkin' about practice. Practice?)

I digress …

"We can all sit and look at it and try to figure out a better way of doing it, but the reality is there really isn't," Greg Biffle said. "We have so many hours that we can use this racetrack without coming a day earlier.

"There's really no way in guaranteeing that we're going to be able to get qualifying in, and it's obvious that we cannot race a 500-mile race without having any practice, so that is the most important thing. We have got to have practice, otherwise we're not racing."

Burton agrees with him.

"I think it's way more important to get practice, go get ready for the race," Burton said. "I think that's way more important. I do understand that if you're 44th in points and you go home and didn't get a chance to qualify, how you could not feel very good about that. On the other hand, I do believe -- this is kind of a hard-nosed stance on it -- but I do believe that protecting the best 43 or 42 teams, there's nothing wrong with that.

"I'm in favor of having 43 teams -- not 48 -- and I think if you're going to put people in a situation where they have limited time to get ready for qualifying, I think it's more fair to take care of the teams that try to attempt every race and are higher in points than others.

"So I'm OK with letting it be done on Friday, and if doesn't get done on Friday then it's over, because I think ultimately that takes care of the teams that have done the best job."

There you have it. It stinks for the boys that don't make the show, but don't expect any changes.

It's racing, man. Buy a raincoat.

Marty,

Been a while since I hit you with a question, but I finally came up with another one for you. Every week we hear the announcers on TV talk about how treacherous pit road is and it's always "the hardest pit road" to get onto to.

My question is, what pit road do the drivers think is the hardest, and which one is the easiest?

-- Matt, Purvis, Miss.

I asked seven drivers' opinions on this one, Matt, and Dover was the overwhelming choice for hardest, and for a couple of reasons. First, the transition from concrete banking to slippery, flat pavement gives drivers fits. Couple that with the speed-versus-angle challenge it presents and it's the most difficult pit road entrance in NASCAR.

The easiest are California and Michigan. Easy transitions on and off pit road and wide, long pit boxes.

Marty,

How could you put in Door-To-Door that Jeff Burton is a jackass? You call yourself a Virginian. How dare you! We the commonwealth have made Darrell Waltrip apologize and we had an Elliott Sadler commercial removed from TV. I know you hang out with JJ, BUT we don't like him. We are all going to complain about you.

-- D. Green, South Boston, Va.

Uhhh … go back and read it again, there, Einstein. The e-mailer called ME a jackass. I did everything but call Burton the Second Coming. Come on, man …

Marty,

Has there ever been a NASCAR driver win the title without winning a race that season?

-- Ronald White, hometown unknown

Ronald White, huh? Bet you've never heard this before: TATERRRR SAALLLAADD!

Anyway, nope. Every Cup Series champion has won at least once during his respective title season, Ron.

Hey Marty!

I was just wondering how Kevin Hamlin could race in the Memphis Nationwide race since he was just suspended from NASCAR indefinitely for the Red Bull fiasco?

-- Crystal P., Jarratt, Va.

That's funny, Crystal. Different Kevin Hamlin. This one has been in the Ganassi development program for years but only gotten sporadic chances to race at the Nationwide level. The suspended Kevin Hamlin has been a crew chief for a hundred years and a hundred different drivers, everyone from Dale Earnhardt to Jeff Burton to Dave Blaney. He is now crew chief for "The Sheriff," Brian Lee Vickers over at Red Bull.

Hi Marty!

I was watching the Martinsville race before going back to school, and my brother noticed how green the grass was around the corners of the track. So he wants to know if they paint the grass or not?

-- Natalie, Milwaukee

Indeed, Natalie, they do. Wonder if they spray-paint those hot dogs pink, too?

That's my time this week. Packing my Charlie 1 Horse cowboy hat and Justin boots and headed to Pilot Point to meet all my rowdy friends for a hoedown at the Lowbrow. Can. Not. Wait. See y'all there.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.