There he is,striding quickly down pit road at Michigan International Speedway on a blue-skyafternoon in the Irish Hills of Michigan. Jeff Gordon, a California native,walks like a New Yorker these days--at a brisk pace with his eyes trainedstraight ahead, oblivious to the commotion that inevitably surrounds him--andnow he's moving toward his car as he prepares for qualifying on June 15, twodays before the Citizens Bank 400. On more than 30 Fridays a year for 15 yearsat the varied tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Gordon has been making this trekfrom his hauler to his car for qualifying. But this season there's somethingdifferent about the four-time Cup champion who, through Sunday, sat atop theNextel Cup standings with a 271-point lead. Actually, there's a lotdifferent.
Before he lifts himself into his race car, Gordon rubs his hands through hiswavy dark hair, which now has streaks of gray on the sides--the aging driver'spaint scheme. He squints into the sun and, as if deep in thought, gazes intothe blocks of grandstands that rise out of the lush countryside likeskyscrapers. Then he chats with his crew. It used to be that Gordon was deadlyserious whenever he was at the track, but now he and his guys are laughinghard, carrying on like teenagers before a drag race.
Moments laterGordon hops into his number 24 Chevy. He flips on the ignition, then thundersonto the speedway with a blast of horsepower that pounds on the chests of the100 or so fans who are standing nearby. NASCAR's most dominant driver is backon the track, where this season, at age 35, he has suddenly recaptured themagic he flashed so consistently when he won 40 races in a four-season stretchin the late 1990s.
A four-time Cupwinner from 1995 through 2001, Gordon finished no higher than sixth in thestandings in the last two years, prompting whispers in the garage that his bestdays were behind him, that the trials in his personal life had robbed him ofhis edge. But this season Gordon has already won four times and finished secondin three other events. His unexpected resurgence has everyone in NASCAR askingthe same question: How has Gordon done it?
"The changesin Jeff have been going on over a period of three years," says JohnBickford, Gordon's stepfather. "I explain it like this: If you get up inthe morning and you're already not happy, you're not going to do your bestwork. But if life is perfect and everything is going your way, then you'regoing to do your job well, which for Jeff is to drive a car and communicatewith his team. Jeff's now as happy as ever, both at the track and away from thetrack, and it's largely because of two people."
He needed todisappear, to get away from the track and away from the heartbreak. It was July2002, and Gordon's eight-year marriage to Brooke Sealey was ending. They hadbeen NASCAR's most visible couple--the Ken and Barbie of the garage, they werecalled--but now divorce papers had been filed, and the fans really let Gordonhave it. Everywhere the Cup boys traveled, from Dover to Darlington to Daytona,the sea of Gordon bashers used the bluest of language to remind him that hisperfect life had fallen apart. Gordon always acted as if he didn't hear athing, but he always did.
Gordon startedtraveling to New York City, hoping to blend into the crowd. He loved to wanderthe big city, to walk the streets in blissful anonymity. He started spendingmore time with friends who weren't involved in racing. One day Gordon wasinvited to a house in the Hamptons for a minivacation. A group was gettingtogether, he was told, and he gladly accepted the offer.
It was apostcard-perfect spring afternoon. Gordon was lounging by the pool when ...there she was, relaxing nearby in a swimsuit. Her name was Ingrid Vandebosch, aBelgian-born model. Gordon was smitten, and he quickly asked a friend who wasseated next to her to swap places.
"You have tosit me next to her at dinner," Gordon pleaded. "Please,pleeeease."
That night Gordonhad his first conversation with Vandebosch, who had moved to the United States10 years earlier and knew virtually nothing about NASCAR or Gordon--"Ireally had to talk myself up to make a a good impression," Gordon jokes.Not that it mattered. She was as taken with him as he was with her. A few weekslater Gordon invited her to a race in New Hampshire. Every time he was aroundVandebosch he felt love-struck, but there was a rub: He was going through abitter, 16-month divorce, which turned public and ugly before it was finalizedon June 12, 2003. (Gordon paid Brooke a reported $15.3 million in thesettlement.) For two years Gordon and Vandebosch were just friends. Maybe oneday, he thought, maybe one day.
The first timeJeff Gordon saw him, Steve Letarte was just a 16-year-old boy. Tall, gangly andwearing glasses, Letarte had only recently passed his driver's test when hepersuaded Ray Evernham, one of his neighbors in Moorsville, N.C., to give him ajob sweeping floors at Hendrick Motorsports. The year was 1995, and Evernhamwas Gordon's crew chief. "Steve was a good kid who was intelligent andcurious," recalls Evernham. "He fit in right away."
From the startLetarte, whose father, Don, worked at HMS building chassis, peppered anyone hecould corner with questions: How does this machine work? Why are you doing thatto the car? How does Jeff like his car to feel through the corners? "Steveasked, like, 900 questions a day," recalls Robbie Loomis, who succeededEvernham as Gordon's crew chief from 2000 to '05. "We drove to theracetrack together, and he never, ever stopped with the questions."
Letarte quicklyworked his way up the job ladder: After being a gofer in the shop for twoyears, he became the tire specialist and then a mechanic. In February 2002, atthe age of 22, he was promoted to car chief on Gordon's team--thesecond-in-command. Though baby-faced, Letarte was uncommonly mature. He alreadyowned a few commercial real estate properties. He taught Loomis, who was 15years his senior, how to appreciate fine wine and after-dinner cigars. But mostimportant, he was developing a very adult rapport with Gordon. The car chiefworks closely with the driver to go over the changes being made to the car'ssetup and to evaluate how effective they are in actual driving conditions."As a young guy Steve could dissect what I was saying and get a mentalpicture of what was happening in the car," says Gordon. "I won a lot ofraces with Ray Evernham"--47, to be precise--"but I've never beenaround anyone who can get on the same page with me as fast as Steve."
In September2005, just days after Gordon failed to qualify for the 10-driver field in theChase for the Nextel Cup, team owner Rick Hendrick decided on a bold personnelmove: He made Letarte, at 26, the second-youngest crew chief in the21-year-history of Hendrick Motorsports. A few weeks after ascending to thejob, Letarte did something that surprised even Gordon: He ripped up two years'worth of notes and told his driver that they were going to build new race carsfrom scratch. Gordon and Letarte then headed to Atlanta for a two-day testsession--two days that would end up changing the course of Gordon's career.
They wereinseparable. As the '05 season wound down, Vandebosch was at Gordon's side fornearly every race. They had begun dating the previous fall, and Gordon wasseriously taken with Vandebosch. Ingrid did something to Jeff, something thateveryone close to him noticed: She loosened him up. Made him feel relaxed. Madehim, well, discover who he really was. "Ingrid is the first person thatJeff has ever been around who actually understands him," says Bickford."He's not afraid to be himself anymore, imperfections and all. Ingrid isfunny, well-educated, worldly, and she brought out this whole new side toJeff."
Gordon's demeanorat the track changed. He toned down the Christianity talk (his faith, though,is still strong) and started kidding around more, even occasionally tellingjokes. Even if his car was lousy, there would be an easy smile on his face--theunmistakable sign of a man in love.
The feeling wasmutual. "What [attracted] me to Jeff was that he is really cute, and I lovehis blue eyes," Vandebosch says via e-mail, "but what was mostimportant to me is his good heart and his honesty. He is a real fun andpositive person and does not let anything bring him down."
The two weresitting on a couch in Gordon's town house in Charlotte on Mother's Day in 2006when they started talking about their future. Jeff wasn't planning on proposingand he didn't have an engagement ring, but gusts of passion started to blow,and suddenly the power of the moment struck him. Ever since his first marriage,Gordon had promised himself that he wouldn't wed again until his racing dayswere over. But as he looked at Vandebosch on this Sunday afternoon in May,Gordon kept thinking to himself: Why should I fight this? Why should I limitmyself? Finally, his blue eyes met hers, and he said simply, "You knowwhat, why don't we get married?"
They kept theengagement a secret for nearly six weeks. Then on June 24 Gordon held a croquetparty--yes, he is the one NASCAR driver who actually enjoys his croquet--atMeadowood resort, in the heart of wine country in Northern California. Thedozen guests were dressed in traditional white croquet attire, and afterplaying they took their seats around an outdoor table on a sprawling lawn. Asthe sun was setting over the Napa Valley, Gordon raised a glass of lemonade tohis family and friends and said, "Ingrid and I are no longer dating."Gordon, who's always had a keen sense of theatre, paused, letting the crowdwonder if the couple was breaking up. Then he proclaimed, "We're gettingmarried!"
The group eruptedin applause. The next day, at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Gordon won his firstrace in more than eight months.
A few weeks afterthe union of Gordon and Letarte became official, the duo headed to AtlantaMotor Speedway in October 2005 for a test session. For the previous two yearsGordon had essentially used the same setup in his number 24 Chevy as teammateJimmie Johnson did in his number 48. "Jimmie had been running good for solong that we just tried to emulate what he was doing," says Gordon."But that just didn't work. Jimmie and I have different driving styles. Idon't use as much brake getting into the corner as he does. And I never feltcomfortable in the car. I couldn't push it to the limit because I was looseinto the corner."
Letarte hadordered his team to cut up the body of Gordon's car and rebuild it piece bypiece, paying particular attention to the nose. At Atlanta, Gordon drove thenew car for the first time and--presto!--he suddenly felt like he was no longerpiloting an 18-wheeler through the corners. Gordon's lap times were quickerright away. In only his sixth start with Letarte, he won at Martinsville (Va.)Speedway on Oct. 23, his first victory in 23 races.
The two continuedto grow together during the 2006 season. Though Gordon finished sixth in thestandings, he was starting to consistently run in the lead pack. With Letartecalmly calling the shots from atop the pit box, Gordon raced to 14 top fivefinishes in '06, which was one more than Johnson, the Cup winner. Steadily, theWonder Boy--the nickname given to Gordon by Dale Earnhardt more than a decadeago--was being born again.
The edge is back.It's April Fool's Day 2007 in Martinsville, and in the final laps of theGoody's Cool Orange 500, Gordon is all over the back bumper of Johnson. Gordonhas the faster car, but Johnson expertly blocks him. The two bang into eachother hard through the last turn--really hard--but Johnson beats Gordon by .065of a second, a few feet.
Gordon hops outof his car on pit road. He curses, kicks a water bottle, even ignores a fewfans begging for an autograph--something the p.r.-savvy Gordon hardly everdoes. This is a rarely seen side of Gordon's intensity, but then again, this isthe new Jeff Gordon, the guy who's so comfortable in his own skin that he nowlets all of his emotions show, for better or for worse. "[Johnson] is theguy to beat for the championship," Gordon fumes in Martinsville. "I'mnot happy."
So began two ofthe most dominating months of racing of Gordon's career. He won under thelights at Phoenix International Raceway on April 21. Eight days later inTalladega, Ala.--the soul of Earnhardt country--he took the 77th checkered flagof his career on what would have been Dale's 56th birthday. In doing so hepassed the Intimidator for sixth on the alltime wins list, prompting scores offans to hurl cans of Budweiser at Gordon's car.
Next it wasLetarte's turn to win a race. On May 13 in Darlington, S.C., Gordon was insecond place behind Johnson late in the Dodge Avenger 500, but his car wasoverheating and spewing steam from underneath the hood. The caution flag waswaved with 22 laps to go. Johnson headed for the pits. Letarte issued atwo-word command to Gordon: "Stay out." Letarte was often hesitant tooverrule Gordon in 2006 and to make gutsy calls, but he has gainedself-confidence with experience. Thanks to Letarte's directive at Darlington,Gordon assumed the lead, though he figured his engine was about to blow. ButLetarte knew that no one could catch Gordon as long as his car was in front andin clean air. "We've got this," Letarte calmly said over the radio."Stay with us." Gordon did, and his engine held out long enough to beatDenny Hamlin to the finish line for his third win in four races.
Letarte wasn'tdone. On June 10 in Long Pond, Pa., with thunderstorm clouds approaching PoconoRaceway, he ordered Gordon to pit even though he still had plenty of gas in histank. The television commentators on TNT blasted Letarte, but he wanted Gordonto be on a different pit cycle than the rest of the field, which meant thatGordon would inherit the lead when everyone else came onto pit road. This gaveGordon about a 20-lap window to steal the race if rain started to fall. Then,just four laps before Gordon would have had to stop for gas, the thunderstormarrived. The race was red-flagged, and when it was announced over the P.A.system that the event was called and Gordon was the winner, Gordon leaped intoLetarte's arms on pit road. "You are the man!" yelled Gordon, who fullyunderstood that he hadn't won the race, Letarte had. On Sunday at Sonoma,Gordon finished seventh. There was a glitch, however: In a prerace inspectionNASCAR officials found that illegal modifications had been made to the front ofGordon's car. Gordon will probably be docked at least 100 points, and Letartewill likely be suspended for at least four races. (NASCAR had yet to announcepenalties when SI went to press on Monday.) But don't expect this to derailGordon's season. Letarte will still be in constant contact with the team eachrace weekend by cellphone and e-mail.
Could life be anybetter for Jeff Gordon? He married Vandebosch last Nov. 7 in Mexico, and thecouple recently purchased a penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side ofManhattan. Last week in New York City, Vandebosch gave birth to their babydaughter, Ella Sofia Gordon.
"I'm in thebest place in my life that I've ever been," Gordon said recently over lunchat a Birmingham restaurant. "That definitely plays a role in how youperform as a race car driver. I'm so happy to have Steve as my crew chief, andthings couldn't be any better with Ingrid. Hopefully we can continue toroll."
There are still20 races left in the season, so Gordon's 2007 story can't yet be fully written.But he has a beautiful new wife, a healthy child and his most successful teamin years. Even if he doesn't win the Cup in November, he can still truly sayhis cup runneth over.
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Letarte did something that surprised even Gordon. Heripped up two years of notes and told his driver they were going to build NEWRACE CARS from scratch.
"Ingrid is the first person that Jeff has everbeen around who ACTUALLY UNDERSTANDS HIM," says Gordon's stepfather."He's not afraid to be himself anymore, imperfections and all."
With Letarte calmly calling the shots from atop thepit box, the WONDER BOY--the nickname given to Gordon by Dale Earnhardt morethan a decade ago--has been born again.
Photograph by Sam Sharpe
Sixteen races into the 2007 season, Gordon has a 271-point lead in thestandings and his eye on a fifth Cup title.
In his second full season as Gordon's crew chief, Letarte (right) has maturedinto a confident and creative strategist.
JOHN DAVID MERCER/US PRESSWIRE
Gordon has thrived since he met Vandebosch, who just made him adad.
After tying Dale Earnhardt for sixth place on NASCAR's alltime wins list,Gordon unfurled a tribute to Driver Number 3.