Gordon believes experience will rule

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- About the only thing faster than Jeff Gordon on the race track was his offseason away from it. But such is life in the Nextel Cup Series, a seemingly year-round odyssey pausing briefly for the holidays before hitting high speed all over again.

As any successful racer learns with time, the key is finding a way to balance rest with relaxation. Of course, a short stint in a New York City hospital before the annual awards ceremony has a way of making one find time to rest.

Gordon, though, bounced back quickly from his illness and by the time he returned to Daytona International Speedway for preseason testing, he was about as ready to go as a four-time champion could ever be.

"Rested? I'm not sure. But I definitely enjoyed the offseason," Gordon said. "It's tough because you have a limited amount of time and you try to balance it out with fun and travel and doing things with friends. You also have the holidays and time to spend with your family.

"You have to relax and I always struggle with the balance of doing as much as you can but not doing so much to where I'm worn out and need a vacation when I get back from vacation. My offseason went great. I had a blast -- other than getting sick up in New York.

"I was able to make it to St. Bart's for Jimmie's (Johnson) wedding and had a great time down there. And I spent time with my family for Christmas, which was great. And then I went to Aspen, Colorado for snow boarding and snowmobiling. I'm not the kind of person who gets up every morning at 8 a.m. and wants to put the first tracks on the slope. So I was able to relax and have some fun while I was there. After that, I was in Los Angeles for the Auto Show.

"So I had a good offseason, but it just went by so fast more than anything. I feel like I'm fairly well rested. And I'm planning on continuing to rest up and really get prepared for our next test, which is going to be a tough one because it's two days in Vegas and two days in California. Those two tracks and that many days in a row will definitely be a work out. I feel like it will get us well prepared."

Well prepared to launch the "Drive for 5 in '05," that is. Although he finished third in the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup, Gordon was just 16 points behind champion Kurt Busch. And he managed to accomplish that despite the devastating crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane in October that killed 10, including several vital members of the operation.

It could have been enough to send Gordon and teammate Johnson's teams into a downward spiral. Instead, it further motivated them. Questions remain about how the teams will fare this year, but they really won't be answered until the season begins.
For now, everyone in the sport is brimming with optimism and it's hard to argue that Gordon has more right to be optimistic than most.

Gordon would have won the championship under the former points system, but he's quick to point out that really doesn't matter since everyone knew at the start of 2004 that the rules were different.

Asked how losing last year's title felt compared to 1996 -- when teammate Terry Labonte nipped Gordon for the title -- and he says things were quite different.

"In '96, we were only battling with one guy, and last year there were two or three of us who could have won that championship," he said. "I think it was definitely more intense this past season in Homestead than any season I've been a part of. There was so much on the line. You were just pushing the car and yourself to the limits. You have to pay attention to more than just one other car and team."

And as for '96? It's a blur at this point, anyway.

"I'm kind of foggy [on] '96 and that last race," Gordon admitted."I know we were close, but it seemed like that championship was lost four or five races from the end."

Last year, of course, it all came down to Homestead and Gordon was in contention until the bitter end.

And this year?

Gordon isn't focused on beating any one driver; his focus is on making his team better.

But if he has to guess at which drivers will pose his stiffest competition, it's hard not to pick his teammate, not to mention any of Roush Racing's contenders such as Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Busch and then, of course, there's Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The thing is, Gordon knows he's going to leave some names off the list. After all, nobody knows which teams picked up new tricks in the offseason.

"Things change and you just never know who is going to be competitive and who isn't," Gordon said.

The ever-increasing competition could have made chasing that elusive fifth championship even harder. Gordon, though, says the move to the Chase format has made things a bit easier. Now he suspects he'll have a shot at the championship on a yearly basis.

"Had the points not changed, our chances to win championships would be every few years. I feel that with the points we could win every single year," he said. "I say that because our team is very good about being in the top 10. I'm getting a little arrogant by saying that, but I think we're going to be in the top 10 more consistently than a lot of teams out there. We're going to have many chances if the points stay the same way."

But once one is in the top 10, he must be at the top of his game to win it all. And while some may not want to hear it, Gordon thinks he's still improving after all these years.

"I think that skill and experience in these cars is key," he said. "The more they cut off the spoilers, the better us old guys are going to be. It will mean going back to springs and shocks meaning more than aero attitude. There was a time when we went through huge transitions in 2000 and maybe a bit in 2003. We learned a lot about how you set the car up and how you drove it was different. And that took me a little bit to understand whereas some of the young guys just came in and figured it out.

"At times like that when big changes -- tires, springs, aero, whatever -- it's sometimes hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But when it comes to racing, week in and out, experience is key and plays a major role in this sport and off the racetrack where it helps you balance everything out. At the same time, it wears on you. Physically I'm not in the shape I was 10 years ago but mentally I think I'm a better driver and more focused."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.