Can Gordon Get Any Better?

Jeff Gordon’s encore begins in a couple of weeks. The defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion will have his work cut out for him, as he’s one of the prime candidates to win the 2002 title.

Of course, repeating as Winston Cup champion has historically not been that difficult. In the 52 years of NASCAR, the championship has been won two years straight an amazing 13 times. Gordon himself went back to back the last time he won a title, winning in 1997 and 1998.

And Gordon has a lot of wiggle room, too. His season was perhaps the worst championship year in recent times. Even though the 2001 schedule had two more races than 2000 and 1999 and three more than 1998, Gordon’s point total was lower than the champions of those other years.

And his average finish of 11th was the lowest of any champion over the past seven years. His 18 top-five finishes were the least since he had 17 in 1995.

So, when someone asks Gordon what he can improve, he has a long list.

“We’ve definitely got things we can improve on,” Gordon said. “A lot of the things we need to improve on is just staying on top of the things we were good at, and making sure we continue.

“We were weak at the superspeedways last year, so being (in Daytona for testing) with new rules certainly is important to us. We won a road course but don’t feel like we had the best car, so I’d like to see us get a little bit better there. We were real good at the speedways, Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas, Chicago, but we were off a little bit at some of the shorter tracks.

“There are a lot of things. I can pick it apart. There are times we certainly could have been better. I didn’t like the way we ended the season. We could have ended it on a higher note.”

Gordon didn’t exactly limp to the championship, but he didn’t have a Top 5 in the final eight races.

And he wasn’t kidding about being weak at Daytona and Talladega. Three of his worst finishes of the season – 27th, 30th and 37th – came on the restrictor-plate tracks, and he wasn’t among the Top 25 in points in those four races.

Gordon wasn’t spectacular on short tracks, either. He won two poles in six races, but didn’t score a victory on a short track – which used to be a championship-killer in previous seasons. Gordon did have four Top 10s, but finished fifth in short-track points.

As for the road courses, Gordon perhaps has impossible expectations. He won at Watkins Glen, won the pole and finished third at Sears Point, and he’s complaining? Of course, Gordon is Winston Cup’s all-time winner with seven road-course victories, so he has high standards.

So don’t expect Gordon to rest on his fourth-championship laurels. One hint that he’s not came in January testing at Daytona. When asked about Ford drivers perhaps purposely going slower, Gordon said, “You’ve got to have some confidence if you’re going to sandbag and hold back something."

"That means you know how fast you can go," he added. "You’ve got to feel pretty sporty about your program to be able to do that.”

Gordon, so he said, wasn’t that confident.

That doesn’t mean he’s not confident in his team, for the fire still burns. Remember, the last race of 2001 when Gordon gave Robby Gordon a love tap and was penalized?

“I’m just as competitive and intense as everybody else out there,” Gordon said. “I contain myself as much as I can when a championship’s on the line because I know that emotions can get the best of you – as I proved at New Hampshire.”

Robby Gordon likely won’t be Jeff Gordon’s target in 2002, at least not for the championship. Tony Stewart finished second in points last year and vows to eliminate any distractions that could hinder him this season.

Sterling Marlin finished third in 2001, and many consider him a legitimate threat for the title in 2002 driving for Chip Ganassi. Plus, there’s Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett in Robert Yates’ potent Fords, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick certainly stir up a lot of emotion in the Chevy camp.

But Gordon has other ideas.

“First of all, your competition is yourself,” Gordon said. “You’ve got to make sure that you as a team and a driver come together and put your best effort out there and are the team to beat. Then, if you are, your competition is somebody different every weekend. Most of last year it was Ricky Rudd, Jarrett, Sterling.

“Stewart had a tough start to the season, so he got behind the eight ball. He really came on strong last year, and I look for him to be a real threat this year. I thought he would have been last year, too.”

Gordon’s team returns basically intact from last year, so he should be able to continue the positive momentum. But there’s one small change that many think will be a hindrance.

Gordon took on part-ownership responsibilities of Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team, and the two drivers will be working together. Or perhaps, Gordon will be spending a lot of time answering Johnson’s questions.

“There’s no doubt that you add something like that, there’s going to be changes, there’s going to be things that are going to affect you,” Gordon said. “The whole reason we’re doing it is to benefit us, not hinder us. For us to keep winning championships in the future - even if it does affect us a little bit at the beginning - in the long haul, it should help us be more competitive.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we were building that team all of last year while we were going for the championship. I’m pretty proud of (my) guys the way they stepped up when all that was going on.”

No one knows, of course, what effect Johnson’s addition will have on Gordon. And no one knows whether Gordon will repeat.

No one knew how strong Gordon would be last year, either.

“The nice thing about last year was there was no pressure,” Gordon said. “We’d had our bad year, and we had our good years. I don’t think a lot of people were paying a whole lot of attention until the season started.

“This year, the offseason has been a little bit different. There’s a lot of pressure from outside to repeat. We’ve got to put that aside and make sure we do what we did last year, and that’s make big gains in the areas we were weak and carry forward the areas we were strong.”

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