When Jeff Gordon climbed out of his sleek, shiny Dupont Chevy after finishing second to Matt Kenseth in the Fontana race, team owner Rick Hendrick took one look at his driver and he knew. The gleam, that special gleam of excitement and confidence, was back in Jeff Gordon's eyes once again.
Hendrick, seeing the spring back in the step of Gordon, made a promise not only to Jeff's fans but to all who would listen. His veteran four-time champion would win this year, not just one race win but would win "multiple races," according to Mr. H.
Whether the failure was on the part of the driver, crew chief, team or company, all would agree that 2008 was a less than stellar one for the No. 24 race team. Rick Hendrick admitted that "we were just not good enough for that team and I feel like we just let them down."
Gordon has also publicly taken responsibility for the woes of the past year. He recently revealed that his back had been bothering him since the 2007 season.
The back pain and spasms were worse when he was running long races. He admitted that the pain broke his concentration and made it difficult for him to effectively wheel the car to the end of the race.
It took the cajoling of his wife Ingrid for Gordon to begin to address his back pain. At her urging, Jeff has now started to get into shape, work with a personal trainer, and has someone at the track to help him deal with his back pain prior to race day.
Gordon also shared that last year was one of adjustment, especially to his role as a new dad. As every parent can attest, he was suffering from lack of sleep and solid rest, another factor affecting his performance on the track.
Getting a handle on all of these various factors enabled Gordon and his team to come out of the box strong at Daytona. Jeff won his Gatorade Duel race, and although there were no points involved, the win boosted his confidence going into the Daytona 500.
Gordon led fourteen laps at Daytona and his car looked good throughout most of the race. Unfortunately, he pitted and then the rains came, putting him in thirteen place for the race finish.
Still, team 24 had great hopes and strong confidence headed out to California. Gordon qualified in the sixth position and again had another strong car throughout the race, finishing second to race winner Matt Kenseth.
"We were very happy with the second place finish" said Gordon. "It's a great momentum builder for this team and we are starting the season off right."
With his good finishes to date, Gordon currently sits second in the points. While still early in the 2009 season, this is a much better start than last year and a whole different attitude for the driver and his crew.
"I can't wait to get to Las Vegas," is Gordon's current mantra. After last year's wicked crash at the race track, resulting in SAFER barriers being installed, one would think Gordon wouldn't be all that thrilled to return.
But, he is very much looking forward to getting back to that track and actually even taking a look at that place where he hit so hard that his car basically exploded all around him.
"I'm sure at some point during the weekend I'll glance over at the new wall when I'm driving down the backstretch to see what they've done," said Gordon. "But I'm sure I'll see enough of it watching practice and qualifying on television" he quipped.
Gordon and his family will be traveling to Colorado before heading off to the Las Vegas track. He will also be doing an event with the National Guard, jetting off to Washington, D.C. and then back to Colorado and Vegas.
While he cannot wait to get back on the track, Gordon is also looking forward to an event off the track. He will be doing a Question and Answer session for fans, signing autographs, and just "hanging out one-on-one" at the SPEED stage.
Gordon said that it will be "nice to do something outside of the garage/infield area which is something that hasn't been done in a long time and it's just a small way for us to give something back to the fans for all their support."
Gordon's family has also noticed a new attitude. John Bickford, Jeff's step-father, said that Gordon has been most focused on his family, his fans, and his responsibility to racing.
Bickford noted that Jeff is doing all he can to economize, flying commercial and taking his own car to the track. He said that Gordon is trying to lead by example, making some of the same sacrifices that his team has had to make to deal with the struggling economy.
Whether feeling physically better, or being more adjusted to fatherhood, or just loving his new paint scheme on his race car, Jeff Gordon certainly seems to have a new attitude.
"The car is driving good. It's just starting off right", Jeff stated. "I think we only have room for improvement. I'm so excited about this race team."
With enthusiasm and confidence in his voice, the gleam of determination in his eyes, and the spring of optimism in his step, Jeff Gordon is indeed poised to put the past season behind him and set out to conquer the new one that has just begun.