Jeff Gordon lets his emotion flow easily, and these days — his best in the race car in years — it is helping him.
“My daughter, she made me cry on the phone because she told me she was crying because she wasn’t able to be in Victory Lane,” he said Sunday after winning at Martinsville Speedway. “That kind of stuff makes every win special.”
It’s a good thing Gordon isn’t keeping his feelings inside.
He believes that is what helped him get his season going and has put him where he is now, third in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, 27 points behind the leaders as the series comes to Fort Worth for the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday.
A heart-to-heart talk with his crew chief that followed a crash at Daytona in July and a disappointing 10th-place finish at New Hampshire, one of his strongest tracks, got him out of “a bad attitude,” Gordon said.
“It was kind of a bonding moment for us,” the veteran driver said of him and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, who was on the hot seat after three disappointing seasons with the former four-time champion. “As well as a smack-myself-around a little bit, to where I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve got to go and work as hard as I can, give these guys everything they’ve got because they’re working their butts off, and let’s pull it together.’ ”
Gustafson called the moment “a reset.”
“We said, ‘Hey, being negative is not going to do any good. We’re going to have to go at this and be positive and fight hard and put ourselves in position to try to win some races,’” he said.
Gordon faces an uphill climb to the championship with three races remaining. At 27 points behind Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, he needs to be nine places better than both, on average, at each race, not counting bonuses for laps and wins.
But he tested at Texas Motor Speedway last week and said he is more confident than ever at the 1.5-mile track, where he has won only once.
“Let’s be honest — we’re all alive, but right now, there’s two that are in it; our job is to go to Texas and make it three,” Gordon said. “Realistically, legitimately, we’ve got to put pressure on those guys. … We’ve just got to go fight hard and see if we can’t do something extraordinary, and it’s going to take an extraordinary three weeks for that to happen.”
Gordon has been no worse than 15th in the seven Chase races so far. He saved a sixth-place finish at the Chase opener in Chicago when he had a tire problem out of a late restart, and he’s been fourth at Dover, third at Kansas and seventh at Charlotte. He got through the unpredictability of Talladega with a 14th-place finish.
But he hadn’t won this year until Sunday, and he couldn’t legitimately think about a championship until that happened.
“I think what’s even tougher is when you’re not getting the wins, and just over time, it just starts to accumulate,” he said. “And it’s hard to keep the confidence in what you’re doing — each individual on the team, as well as together as a team.”
Gordon, whose team switched crew chiefs the last time it went winless, in 2010, said he was thinking of no such thing this year.
“The thing is, I love this guy,” he said of Gustafson. “I think he’s a great crew chief. I don’t think he gets near enough credit. And when you’re Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, a lot of people like to say things when things aren’t going well. And it makes it even tougher to be in his position.”
Gordon looked over at Gustafson, sitting at the podium with him facing reporters. Gordon spoke calmly, but it was clear emotion was leading the way.
“The toughest thing is to see him go through criticism or to criticize himself or anybody doubt one another,” he said. “When we’re not doing well, I can tell you, I’m not questioning him — I’m questioning myself. I’m like, ‘Man, what do I have to do?’ But the nice thing is, they’re doing the same thing, and that’s how you come together.
“Once he stops believing in me and I stop believing in him, then we’re done.”