Friday October 19th, 2007

As much as any other driver in NASCAR, Jeff Gordon is an absolute pro when it comes to knowing how to act when the cameras are rolling. He's articulate, naturally telegenic, almost always even-keeled, and has a knack for not uttering anything within a zip code of controversial. This, of course, has made him sponsorship gold over the years, but it's also alienated him from a certain fan base -- namely, that of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who was the definition of the tell-it-like-is, expletive-spoutin', old-school racecar driver.

And so it was somewhat surprising to see Gordon's raw emotions in full boil after the Martinsville race last April Fool's day. After he finished second to Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Gordon hopped out of his car on pit road. I was standing a few feet away from Gordon, and right away I could tell that Gordon was livid -- as upset as I've seen him in my four years on the beat. On the last lap he and Johnson had banged into each other hard -- several times -- and Johnson successfully blocked Gordon from winning the race, even though Gordon clearly had the faster car on the last lap.

So what did Gordon do when he got out of his Chevy at Martinsville, which is where the Cup boys will be racing on Sunday? Well, with the cameras on him, he cursed, he said he now knew who exactly his main competitor was for the championship. As he stormed away, he booted a water bottle with impressive force. This may not sound like an over-the-top-display of emotion, but for Gordon, this was a defining moment -- in fact, I would argue that it was THE defining moment of his season.

What we viewed at Martinsville in April was a rare glimpse at Gordon's high-strung intensity. His team saw this as well, and it's no coincidence that Gordon's dominance this season started soon after Martinsville. The next week he finished fourth at Texas, and then he won four of the next seven events to establish himself as the driver to beat in 2007.

What can we expect from Gordon on Sunday when he returns to Martinsville? I think at least a top-five run, if not higher. I still like Johnson to win the title, but Gordon should have an excellent chance to finally beat JJ on Sunday.

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