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April 09, 2007
April 09, 2007

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April 9, 2007

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NASCAR

Jeff's Back

This is an article from the April 9, 2007 issue Original Layout

Fired up after a close loss at Martinsville, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon is off to the best start of his 14-year career

LIFE, FOR a moment, wasn't good for Jeff Gordon. He may have a supermodel for a wife, a baby girl due in June, a swanky new apartment in Manhattan and the points lead in the Nextel Cup standings, but late on Sunday afternoon Gordon was anything but contented. He had just finished second—by .065 of a second—to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in the Goody's Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville Speedway, and the normally even-keeled Gordon was furious that he had lost. He cursed, he kicked a water bottle, and he ignored fans asking for autographs. For a moment the rarely seen intensity of a driver who has won 75 Cup races, four titles and nearly $85 million in prize money was on display. Second place clearly isn't good enough for Gordon, not this year, not when he has finally developed pitch-perfect rapport with his crew chief, Steve Letarte, and emerged as a title favorite.

"[Johnson] is the guy to beat," Gordon said. "He's winning races now, and we're not.... I'm not happy."

Gordon should be delighted, though, with the performance of Letarte, a 27-year-old who first met him when Letarte was 16 and sweeping floors at the Hendrick shop. In September '05 Letarte replaced Robbie Loomis as Gordon's crew chief after Gordon missed the Chase. Letarte and Gordon won two races last season, but Gordon wasn't comfortable in his number 24 Chevy for much of the year, complaining of handling problems. Though the duo finished a disappointing sixth in the Chase in their first full year together, they used the final 10 races of '06 to hone the setup of Gordon's car. The result has been the No. 1 story line of the '07 season. Through six races Gordon's average finish is an eye-popping 5.2—his best start in his 14-year career—and he holds a 28-point advantage over Jeff Burton in the standings.

"We're making better adjustments to the cars, and I'm gaining more confidence in calling races," Letarte said on Sunday. "Our team is coming together."

Indeed, the number 24 car was so fast all weekend at Martinsville that Chad Knaus, crew chief for reigning Cup champ Johnson, approached Letarte on the eve of the race with a question: Can you help me? Gordon's and Johnson's teams are housed under the same roof at Hendrick headquarters in Charlotte, and Letarte and Knaus have an open-book policy. After practice last Saturday morning Johnson was 43rd—dead last—on the speed chart. Knaus asked Letarte about the setup he was using on Gordon's car, and Letarte printed out all of the data for the number 24 and handed the sheet to Knaus, who then implemented Gordon's setup on Johnson's car, shock for shock, tire pressure for tire pressure.

"Steve has now got a really good feel for what Jeff needs in his car," says Knaus. "It takes time to develop that feeling, but he's got it and those guys are really clicking right now."

They are. But on Sunday, as Gordon was leaving the track, he was still shaking his head while he trudged through the dusk. Note to the other drivers: He looked very much like a man determined not to be in anyone's shadow, teammate or not.

ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.

Short Laps

1 The stock car education of Juan Pablo Montoya (right) continues to proceed much faster than expected. On Sunday, Montoya was once again aggressive (he nudged Tony Raines into the wall on lap 375) and impressive (he finished 16th). It appears almost certain that the rookie will win at least one race this season.

2 The biggest disappointment of the season so far? Kasey Kahne. In 2006 Kahne had more wins (six) than any other driver. This year his races have begun to resemble his disaster-filled TV commercials for Allstate. On Sunday he struggled again with an ill-handling car and finished 25th. Kahne is 34th in the standings, and his slow start is symptomatic of the aerodynamic woes that have afflicted all the Dodge teams. At Martinsville, for example, only one Dodge driver finished in the top 10 (Scott Riggs, eighth).

3 The drivers' complaints about the Car of Tomorrow—namely, that it doesn't turn well through the corners—weren't as loud after Martinsville as they were at Bristol on March 25. After two events the CoT has proved to be structurally sound, and there has been no drop in the quality of the racing. SI's early grade for the CoT? B plus.

PHOTOGLENN SMITH/AP (GORDON) PASSPLAY Gordon (24, and at Daytona, left) has no intention of staying behindJohnson (48).PHOTOJEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (CARS)[See caption above]PHOTOKEVIN KANE/WIREIMAGE.COM (MONTOYA)