FOR SOMEONE who hasn't won a race in nearly 17 months, Jeff Gordon is an unusually happy man. There he was late on Sunday afternoon on pit road at Atlanta Motor Speedway, slapping high fives with Carl Edwards as if they were best buddies (they're not) and cheering like a starry-eyed fan as race winner Kurt Busch drove in reverse on the frontstretch. Yes, racing is fun again for Gordon. Moments earlier he had blazed to a second-place finish in the Kobalt Tools 500. Though his winless streak is at 45 and counting—the longest dry spell of his 17-year Cup career—Gordon, four events into the 2009 season, is in a familiar place: atop the points standings.
"This is the best my body has felt and the best my cars have felt in a long time," says Gordon, the four-time Cup champion, who has a 43-point lead over Clint Bowyer. "I feel like we can win every week, which is something I didn't think last year."
The seeds of Gordon's resurgence were planted late in 2008. As he struggled to a seventh-place finish in the points, his crew chief, Steve Letarte, added resources to the number 24 team over the final month of the season. Specifically, Letarte brought on a second engineer who traveled to the race tracks each weekend to help him analyze computer simulation data and find additional speed. Gordon, unlike teammate Jimmie Johnson, rarely felt comfortable in the Car of Tomorrow; he eased off the throttle through the turns more than other top drivers because he sensed he was on the verge of losing control. But Letarte, using the extra engineering support, aggressively retooled the setup of the Chevy, focusing on getting more tire grip through the corners. It worked: Gordon finished in the top five in two of the last three races.
"We were sick of getting our butts kicked," Letarte says. "So we tore everything down in the setup and started over."
So far in 2009 Gordon has led laps in each race, and his average finish of 5.75 is the best in the series. He has repeatedly outrun Johnson, the three-time defending Cup champ, and Edwards, the preseason title favorite. After Gordon sailed by Edwards on the penultimate lap on Sunday, Edwards shook his head and said, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with Jeff Gordon."
Well, not anymore, anyway. For the last two years Gordon, 37, has experienced chronic lower back pain. To overcome it, he is working out regularly for the first time in his career, and he goes through a 45-minute, prerace stretching routine. Gordon is also more rested. The demands of fatherhood exacted a heavy toll on him last season. When his wife, Ingrid, and their daughter, Ella, who is now 20 months old, stayed in his motor coach, Gordon rarely slept soundly. According to most sports psychologists who work with NASCAR, a driver makes as many as 50 decisions on a single lap, which places a premium on mental acuity and alertness. Lack of sleep usually translates into lack of speed.
"I was dead tired for a lot of last year," Gordon says. "Now Ingrid and Ella don't arrive at the track until Sunday morning. I feel great. I feel rested. And I feel like we're back in championship contention."
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Tom Bowles's Power Rankings.
1 In winning his first race of '09, Kurt Busch led more laps on Sunday (234) than he did all last season (164). Over the winter Busch and his crew chief, Pat Tryson (above left, with Busch), emphasized improving on 1.5-mile tracks, which are a big part of the Chase schedule. Sunday's victory was Busch's first at such a venue since November '02.
2 Media center estimates put the crowd at 60,000 (NASCAR estimated attendance at 94,400), making it the smallest gathering at Atlanta Motor Speedway for a Sunday race in more than a decade. The flagging economy is taking a toll on the sport. More than 1,000 tickets remain for the March 22 Sprint Cup race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, which is in danger of not selling out a Cup race for the first time since 1982.
GEOFF BURKE/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (TOP)
ALL SMILES Gordon (below) got faster after his crew took apart his car and started over.
CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES (GORDON)
[See caption above]
MATTHEW T. THACKER/ASP/ICON SMI (TRYSON AND BUSCH)