Is Jeff Gordon Going Through The Motions?

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There was a time when Victory Lane seemed anticlimactic.

After all, when a driver wins four consecutive races leading up to a 13-victory season or takes his third title by the age of 27, he probably thinks the winning will never end. So the checkered flag falls, the crew offers each other the obligatory high-five's and head for the winner's circle -- a place where the No. 24 car has visited at 17 of the 21 venues on the Winston Cup circuit. The team crew members force smiles for the legions of photographers insisting they "strike a pose" in this direction and that.

Then one day it ends. A week goes by without a win -- and then another. A period of 13 races pass with statistics of only one pole, one top-five and seven top-10 finishes and the team isn't even in the top 10 in points. Suddenly, the hassle of victory lane starts to look good again.

On Sunday, Jeff Gordon ended the drought -- at least by Rainbow Warrior standards -- and won the DieHard 500 at Talladega. After having time to reflect on the experience, Gordon swears he never took any of the victories for granted, but the 28-year-old has developed a new appreciation for the process.

"I think the whole time we knew how special of a season we were having," Gordon said. "But I've got to be honest with you. When you pull into victory lane the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th time, it's not the same feeling. I think when you work hard and you don't go to victory lane and time goes by, I think you do start to respect it a lot more and realize how hard it is and how competitive it is to get into victory lane.

"I think what was going through my mind (during final laps at Talladega) was, 'all right, don't blow this. This is an opportunity of a lifetime right now because it had been 13 races.' It is hard to win these days, and you want to take advantage of every opportunity."

Robbie Loomis, who came on board as crew chief for Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports at the end of last year, realizes just how precious each win can be. During his nine-year tenure at Petty Enterprises, the 35-year-old Forest City, Fla. native visited victory lane only three times. His last trip came 35 races ago with John Andretti in the Goody's 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

His former owner, Kyle Petty, once told Loomis that no win would ever feel like the first one he experienced with Bobby Hamilton in 1996, but Loomis disagrees.

"I told Jeff after the race that I will always remember this win," Loomis said. "Phoenix, Rockingham and Martinsville were sweet, but this felt every bit as good because we worked so hard to get here and it was expected. With all the changes we've been through, it's been a struggle for the guys, it's been a struggle for Brian (team manager Whitesell) and it's been a struggle for me. But Jeff got us through this. He and John (Hendrick) and Rick (Hendrick), they never gave up on us. We pulled together as a team and gave Jeff what he has been accustomed to."

For Loomis, that is not false modesty. He realizes with the resources at Hendrick Motorsports, as well as the caliber of the employees, his team can win on any given week. Nevertheless, so can about 15 other crews. But they don't have his secret weapon -- Gordon.

"For many years I sat next to the King (Richard Petty) on Sunday and he would point out Jeff's moves and showed me what made him so good. And on a lot of Sundays I would go home real mad. But on Sunday, after watching him come back through the pack and make his way to the front, I told Jeff I wasn't mad at him any more."

There have been nine winners in nine races to start the 2000 season, setting a new NASCAR record. All the effort NASCAR public relations representative Danielle Humphrey went through last week at Talladega to gather the eight prior winners to take a group photo was all in vain with Gordon adding to the latest statistic.

Loomis knows the competition is tough, still he thinks it is amazing that there have been no repeat winners this season.

"I hope they're waiting for us to set the standard," Loomis said. "Because that's what Jeff is capable of doing. It wouldn't surprise me if we were the first repeat winner this season."

Rusty Wallace admitted after his victory at Bristol Motor Speedway that he never thought it would take 498 races to accumulate 50 wins. Although Gordon set a new record by accumulating 50 wins in the shortest period time (232 races), most people would have picked him to hit the mark before Wallace.

Mark Martin's humble comments after his 32nd win at Martinsville, that he was "thoroughly going to enjoy the win because he never knew when it might be the last," may become the latest mantra for many a racer including Gordon.

"I think this has been a great test for all of us," Gordon said. "It's really been a test for our faith in one another, our faith in God and I think we've done good up against this test. But we still have a lot of things left to accomplish and I definitely know how excited I was on Sunday and how great that felt and how I'd love to get there again some day."

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