Birth of daughter a nice consolation prize for Gordon

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Ingrid Vandebosch held her 5-month-old daughter, Ella, tightly as Daddy got into his race car Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Ella had no clue why so many people were gathered around her and the multicolored No. 24 car on pit road. She was oblivious to where the man she has yet to call by name stood in the points standings or what he had to do to overtake the 86-point lead teammate Jimmie Johnson had built to win a fifth title.

She was just enjoying the warm Florida sunshine and blowing bubbles with her lips as babies like to do.

But, one day, when she's old enough to understand, Daddy will tell her about the 2007 season. He'll tell her how he passed seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in career wins at Talladega, how he won at Darlington with steam pouring from his engine and how he built the points lead to more than 400 before the start of the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

He'll tell her how, four races into the Chase he had two wins -- including a victory at Talladega that was the first he celebrated with his precious little girl in Victory Lane -- to give him six for the season and a 68-point lead.

Then he'll sigh and tell how Johnson ran off an incredible four straight wins to turn Daddy's dream season into an afterthought.

"The year that almost was," Jeff Gordon said moments after climbing out of the car. "The year that she was born, that she came into this world, was a spectacular year for us, for Ingrid and myself and for our race team.

"Certainly, I'm going to look back at this as a great year, but it wasn't a championship year."

No, Gordon didn't pull off a miracle Sunday.

Despite driving the wheels off the car as crew chief Steve Letarte radioed halfway into the 400-mile event, he finished fourth, which left him 77 points behind Johnson.

But in many ways, this was a miracle season, from the birth of his daughter to the six wins and record 30 top-10s that would have been more than enough to win the title any other year.

"It's bittersweet for us to come up short," said Gordon, who has 81 career wins. "We were so close and really felt like this was going to be our year. Jimmie and those guys were just better. They outperformed us. We were consistent, but we didn't perform well enough to win the championship."

Gordon was spectacularly consistent, particularly during the Chase. He won two races and had nine top-10s for an average finish of 5.1. Johnson had a similar 5.0 average but collected more bonus points with his four wins in the Chase and six in the regular season.

"I know how good my team was this year, one of the best teams I've ever been a part of," said Gordon, whose worst finish in the Chase was 11th. "For them to come out 77 points ahead over 10 races is very impressive.

"To be honest, I'll take a [5.1] average the rest of my career. I'm pretty sure that will win a couple of more championships."

Gordon's biggest mistake was being content with a solid average, believing that Johnson's more aggressive style eventually would lead to a mistake and give him the title.

"I've always known it was possible for somebody to be aggressive like Jimmie and win races," Gordon said. "You've got to push the limit to lead a lap and win the races that way. What makes those guys so good is they are able to push the limit and not make mistakes.

"What they did this year was incredible."

What Gordon did also was nothing short of incredible. Team owner Rick Hendrick let him know that as the two embraced on pit road.

"Oh, man, congratulations, buddy," Hendrick said before moving on to congratulate Johnson.

To which Gordon responded, "One of these days, I'm going to give you another one."

Gordon did all he could Sunday to make that happen. He spent much of the race a spot or two ahead of Johnson, just as he did most of the season.

He opted for two tires during a pit stop under caution, jumping from 13th and one spot ahead of Johnson to third and 11 spots ahead and cutting the points differential to 41 in real-time scoring.

But Gordon never led a lap and never could get Johnson far enough out of his rearview mirror to make a difference.

"Looking back on it, we should have gotten more aggressive," Gordon said. "Tonight was one of the most aggressive setups we've had and one of the best cars we've had in a while.

Jeff Gordon

All the other years, when we've had the year we had like this year, we've been the ones to go out there and put the pressure on the competition. It's a great learning experience for us. We're not done yet.

-- Jeff Gordon

"We had an incredible race car. And we put up the best fight we know how to. I hate we were this far behind coming into this race as we were."

Although seven-time champion Richard Petty believes losing this title will take the wind out of Gordon's sails, Hendrick never has seen his driver as competitive -- or as happy.

"He's happier in his life as a whole than I've ever seen him since I've known him," he said.

That doesn't mean losing this one didn't hurt. Gordon had no doubt this was his year until Johnson went on one of the best rolls in NASCAR history since Gordon won four straight en route to the 1998 title.

"I've never been in this position," Gordon said. "All the other years, when we've had the year we had like this year, we've been the ones to go out there and put the pressure on the competition. It's a great learning experience for us. We're not done yet."

Gordon didn't lose the championship. Johnson won it.

And Gordon accepted that with class and dignity. He pulled beside Johnson on the cool-down lap to offer congratulations. He playfully waved his fist at Johnson as JJ did a burnout that drowned out Gordon's postrace interview.

"He's been doing it for the last couple of years, I guess," Gordon said of being upstaged.

One day, Ella undoubtedly will hear from others how well her daddy handled this night. She will hear how he went to Victory Lane to celebrate with his teammate, how he and Johnson celebrated late into the evening.

One day, Gordon hopes to tell Ella how he won a fifth, maybe sixth and seventh title.

"Every time you win a race, every time you win a championship, you think it could be the last," said Gordon, 36. "We've heard Mark Martin say that forever. I know what he means. You work so hard, and you just really never know when it's going to happen again.

"That for me is the toughest part of this year. I'm not getting any younger. I put up as good a numbers as I know how to put up, and it wasn't enough. That's tough to handle as a competitor."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.