With a touch of gray in his sideburns, a second child on the way and a well-established career, Jeff Gordon seems to fit the profile of a man who has driven successfully into the middle of his life.
At age 38, Gordon has earned more than $111 million as one of the best NASCAR drivers ever. After trudging through a high-profile divorce, he has a beautiful second wife and a 2-year-old daughter. The family is building a dream home in Charlotte.
Gordon should be comfortable.
In truth, as he enters Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon is hungry. And a bit ornery. And really tired of finishing behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who has won the past four Sprint Cup championships.
It was 16 years ago at this same 600-mile endurance test that Gordon – “Wonder Boy,” as Dale Earnhardt would derisively nickname him – won his first race in NASCAR’s top series.
But “Wonder Boy” is no more. Gordon is grown now, trying to find his place in the second half of a career that began so brilliantly.
Gordon had won four Cup championships by age 30 and seemed a threat to surpass the record of seven, held jointly by Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Gordon hasn’t won a title since 2001, however. And he’s not happy about it.
Gordon introduced Johnson to his wife and he still co-owns Johnson’s No. 48. But their relationship this season has been prickly. Gordon believes that he and Johnson will be better friends in 15 to 20 years than they are today.
“At the beginning of Jimmie’s career, I was OK with him doing as well as he was doing,” Gordon said when we talked in his hauler earlier this month. “But I also expected us to be able to get our share of championships and wins as well.
"When that didn’t happen, it was like, ‘Hey, what do we have to do to get that back?’ And sometimes you’ve got to get that fire in your eye. You’ve got to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got no friends out there.’ And I feel like that’s what we have right now. That’s not just geared toward Jimmie. That’s everybody.”
Rick Hendrick, the team owner who employs both Gordon and Johnson as teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, said he has noticed a change in Gordon’s demeanor in 2010. Always one of the nicest guys in the sport, Gordon seems sterner.
“Jeff has been motivated by some people saying he’s not what he was, that he doesn’t have the same fire,” Hendrick said. “He does have it now. It’s back.
"It’s almost like his life is so good off the race track that when he gets to the track now he’s just so focused. I honestly don’t believe there’s anybody in the garage who wants it worse than Jeff does. He’s racing this year like he did when he first showed up.”
Gordon has led the most laps of any Sprint Cup driver so far this season. But he hasn’t won yet. He’s on an 0-for-41 winless streak dating to 2009, although he has posted eight second-place finishes during that time (and has 82 career victories).
With a third of this season complete, Gordon ranks No. 6 in points. Johnson is fourth.
Gordon qualified 15th for Sunday’s race, which is scheduled to begin a little after 6 p.m. and ranks as the longest on the Sprint Cup circuit. Johnson qualified fifth.
When Gordon climbs out of his familiar No. 24 car on work days, he goes home to his wife, Ingrid, and daughter, Ella, who is almost 3 years old. He takes an obvious delight in fatherhood. Ingrid is pregnant again, and the family expects a baby boy in August.
“I do things I never thought I’d be doing as a father,” Gordon said. “I’m singing songs to Ella driving down the road. I’m sitting on the bathroom floor with her, trying to get her to go to the bathroom or brush her teeth.
"I love it. My little girl is so sweet. So amazing. But it’s a lot of work, too. It’s a tough balance between work and home.”
The family splits its time between New York – where they own a luxury apartment that overlooks Central Park – and Charlotte. They plan to make Charlotte their primary base once their new home is completed, in part because they like the schools here.
“It’s an interesting time in my life,” Gordon said. “I was always ‘The Kid,’ you know. I was always the youngest guy in every racing series. Success came quick, at every age. But now I understand better who I am, and what’s important.”
Although Gordon once said he probably wouldn’t be driving full time at age 40, he has changed his mind. He has back problems, but combats them with three sessions a week with a personal trainer. He may be in the best shape of his career and openly admires Mark Martin, a workout demon who is driving well at age 51.
Some fans have changed their minds about Gordon, too. He has always had a strong core of supporters, but was seen as a “too-much, too-soon, too-handsome” interloper by others when he was battling Earnhardt for championships in the mid-1990s.
When Gordon crashed during a race, the wreck was often greeted by cheers from fans of Earnhardt’s No. 3 car.
Now that Gordon doesn’t win nearly as often and seems less of a “Mr. Perfect” following his divorce, he is more of a sympathetic figure. He draws some of the loudest cheers in every prerace introduction. The ire of hard-core racing fans is mostly saved for others – Kyle Busch and sometimes Johnson. Those two drew the two biggest roars of last weekend’s all-star race when they crashed out of contention in separate incidents.
Still, it’s a struggle for Gordon to get where he wants to go nowadays.
Gordon has won once in 89 races since late October 2007. Johnson has won 21 times during that same time period, and the two get their Chevrolets at the same shop.
That rankles Gordon. So did on-track incidents at Talladega and Texas this season, when Gordon and Johnson verbally clashed over racing tactics. Gordon and Johnson are certainly not sworn enemies, though. They are too similar, and too media savvy, for that. Allowed Johnson, however: “Competition does crazy things to people.”
The two men used to hang out together, both when they were single and then with their wives. But that changed when Gordon remarried and became a dad.
“I’m going to be a father soon and maybe we’ll have more in common and be around each other more on the personal side,” Johnson said. “…At the end of our careers, I’m sure we’ll sit back and have a few beers and talk about a lot of things. But right now we’re just competitive teammates doing our thing.”
As both men chase their fifth Cup championship, Gordon finally seems confident that he’s got the cars tuned the way he wants to compete with the dominant driver of the past decade. Although Gordon’s remarkable early success came with former crew chief Ray Evernham, his relationship with current crew chief Steve Letarte has improved.
That was prompted in part by an offseason fishing trip the two took that Hendrick termed a “brain dump.” And Gordon sounds like he’s willing to do whatever he must to get to championship No. 5, preferably ahead of teammate Johnson.
“It would mean so much,” Gordon said. “We’ve had a taste of that, of course, but it seems like it’s been a long, long time.”
To taste it again, Gordon will need to beat Johnson.
“Those two want the same thing,” Hendrick said, “and so there’s still some tension. You can see it in Jeff’s eyes this year – he’s on some sort of mission.”
Said Gordon of Johnson: “I’m not going to let him be the lead dog. I want to be the lead dog – again.”