Hes Baaaaaack

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Love him or hate him, which seems to be the case with most fans, three-time Winston Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon is back atop the points standings. It’s a place he hasn’t been since his win in the 1999 season-opening Daytona 500.

Since former crew chief Ray Evernham’s departure from Hendrick Motorsports later that same year, many have been asking, "What’s wrong with Jeff Gordon?" Now that crew chief Robbie Loomis has a full season under his belt with Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet camp, four races into the year people are starting to wonder, "What’s wrong with everybody else beside Gordon?"

If one thing has become apparent so far this season, it’s that the drivers who were supposed to be challenging for the Winston Cup title can seem to do no right. As a result, Gordon was able to use a runner-up effort to rookie driver Kevin Harvick on Sunday at Atlanta to move back into familiar territory as the Winston Cup points leader.

Gordon carries a 37-point lead over Dale Jarrett into this Sunday’s Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway, a track where Gordon has three poles and five victories.

"I've been telling people how strong this team is," Gordon says. "We’re off to a great start this season, and I believe there are only greater things to come. We've just got to keep using our heads and keep doing what we're doing and keep building this momentum.

"It's just great and I'm real proud of the way my team is performing."

The way it’s looking, although it's way too early in a long season to tell, Gordon and Jarrett, if experience means anything, might be set to settle the title amongst themselves if some of the other expected title contenders don’t hurry up and get their act together.

A case in point is defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte who sits 26th in the standings with only one Top 10 so far. And he’s not alone, as Mark Martin is just 14 points ahead in 25th, with fellow Roush Racing teammate Jeff Burton a staggering 38th. Jeremy Mayfield has dug himself an even deeper hole as he sits 40th.

After getting caught up in the melee on the backstretch at Daytona and finishing 30th, Gordon has posted finishes of third at Rockingham, a victory at Las Vegas and second at Atlanta to, so far, be the model of consistency.

Gordon had the car to beat Sunday at Atlanta until a costly fuel miscalculation dropped the No. 24 a lap behind until Hendrick teammate Jerry Nadeau jammed on the brakes while racing back to a caution to allow Gordon to get back on the lead lap.

"Jerry really helped me out there," Gordon said. "We ran out of fuel, unfortunately, which was just a little bit of a mistake, but we rebounded from it. We had a great car in the first half, and when we ran out of gas it just wasn't the same. I think a lot of other guys improved their cars and we were able to get it back in the end. I don't know what happened really.

"The guys on my team said we went 58 laps earlier and had fuel left over, but this is a brand-new car, brand-new fuel cell. We've never run it dry to do a fuel-mileage check on it, so that might have caught us a little bit.

"Luckily we made some adjustments there at the end and we were capable of winning, but we had to battle all day long to get the car back up there. I'm just thankful we were able to come back and have the run that we did."

So is the No. 24 team back for good?

"I've never lost confidence in the fact that I know what I need in a car," Gordon answered. "I've had to adjust the way I drive the car sometimes. Cars are faster, tracks are different, and setups are a little bit different. I've had to push myself to new levels, but I've always felt like I knew what I needed in a car.

"When you get that kind of confidence and you see the team where I see them today, you'll have runs where no matter where you start, you'll have to work your way up to the front. In 1998, we won about 10 races that we shouldn't have won. I can't believe we won some of those races.

"Sometimes you had a sixth-place car and all of a sudden the four guys ahead of us would go into the pits and the caution came out. It was a crazy year, and that's kind of what you have to have to win 13 races.

"Every year since 1995, the first time we ever went for a championship, our goal is to win every year. Our goal was that last year, but I don't know if we were really in a position or as prepared to do that as hard as we needed to be. This year we're very well prepared."

And that’s a credit to Loomis, who was faced with the task of replacing Evernham after a short crew chief stint by Brian Whitesell.

"Every day that me and Jeff are together, every practice we're together, every time we're on the race track and we're talking on the cell phone, it's just a building of getting better and better," Loomis says. "At the beginning of last year, we handled each other differently. The beginning of last year, he'd like to have killed me because of the way we were running, but I knew we had to make a few changes in order to win races."

So far, that strategy has propelled the No. 24 team and Gordon to the top of the heap… a place he remembers well.

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