SONOMA, Ca. — Perhaps this is where the toughest racing season of Jeff Gordons NASCAR life turns around.
Six weeks shy of his 41st birthday, Gordon spent the first 14 years of his life in Vallejo, Ca., just a few miles east of the Sonoma race track where he will start second in Sundays Toyota/Save Mart 350 Sprint Cup race.
As a speed-chasing youngster, Gordon raced all over northern California but never at Sonoma. It wasnt until he came here as a Sprint Cup rookie 19 years ago that Gordon took on Sonoma, a place where hes won five times and looms as one of the drivers to beat Sunday.
Gordon has won four Sprint Cup championships, ranks third all-time with 85 victories, and his nine road-course wins are the most of any driver in a sport built on oval-track racing. But this year is bordering on being a bust.
He ranks 20th in points, rare territory for a driver who has finished outside the top 10 in points just once (2005) since his rookie season in 1993. A season that started with a blown engine and 40th-place finish in the Daytona 500 has been checkered by disappointing results.
Only two drivers Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle have led more laps than Gordon this season, but a fourth-place at Texas is his only top-five finish this year.
Despite the frustrations this season, Gordon has a good vibe here. It feels like home, he said, but so does Indiana, where he moved as a teenager, and so does Charlotte, where he and his family live now.
Landing in San Francisco Thursday night, Gordon thought back to his racing roots.
I remembered as a kid getting up at 4 a.m. to get on the flights. Thats how early we had to get up to get to the airport, Gordon said, leaning against a wall in his teams hauler in the Sonoma garage.
In the past, weve stayed in the wine country (north of San Francisco and nearer his Vallejo birthplace). That brought back memories of driving to a race track like Calistoga. Wed drive through the wine country. I was always like, This is amazing. It was night and day from Vallejo.
Now Gordon has his own high-end brand of wine.
He also has the seasoning to understand the fickle nature of racing. Its come in handy.
At Bristol, Gordon wound up 35th after getting bumped by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. He led 329 laps at Martinsville but wound up 14th. A blown tire ruined his night at Darlington. After leading 60 laps at Dover, Gordon finished 13th. On the pole at Talladega, he finished 33rd.
With 10 races remaining to make the Chase, Gordon probably needs to win twice to race his way into the season-ending battle for the championship. Its an odd place Gordon finds himself.
Its been frustrating, no doubt, Gordon said. But I have been around long enough to know you have to put (the last) race behind you and go on to the next one. It doesnt matter if you win it or finish dead last. Thats how this sport is. I have a lot of confidence in what were doing in terms of speed. Our cars are fast. We have a lot of great things happening for us.
Were not out of it yet with the new format. We just keep plugging away and try to learn from our mistakes and not get too frustrated.
When Dale Jr. ended his four-year, 143-race winless streak last Sunday at Michigan, it left Gordon as the only one of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers without a victory this year.
I feel bad for Jeff, teammate Jimmie Johnson said. "It probably makes it worse that hes been close. It might be the one thing that helps at night when he goes to bed is they have speed and been close so many times.
Its Jeff Gordon and he knows what to do. It wont be long.
During the offseason, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson talked about their relationship and what they needed to make the team as strong as possible. They didnt foresee what has transpired, but it has helped them work through the disappointments.
Some weeks, it has been Gustafson who has pointed the team forward. Other weeks, it has been Gordon, which is not something hes often had to do.
This year Ive had to do it more on a personal level, one on one, and in team meetings really kind of stepping out there and putting some words out there that I feel like could be key to keeping us together and getting us through these tough times.
Approaching his 41st birthday, Gordon smiles and says he feels his age when he wakes up each morning. He feels it on the track at times, too, giving him wisdom that he didnt have earlier in his career.
At Michigan last week with speeds over 200 miles per hour on a newly paved track, Gordon took a conservative approach. He expected blistering tires to be a problem, laid back early and though he fell near the back of the field early in the race, Gordon preached patience to himself.
He knew if his car was good enough, hed have a good finish. He wound up sixth.
Thats the benefit of being 40, Gordon said. Its no different than in life, the same thing. Then there are times when I wish I was younger and more aggressive and more carefree. Just put the pedal down and not worry about anything else.
The competitive desire, thats whats always driven me. That never changes.
Gordon wants to win another Sprint Cup championship. He won four in a seven-year stretch starting in 1995, but its been more than a decade since his last championship.
Life has changed. Hes with a new team. He and his wife, Ingrid, have two children. They werent part of his championship seasons. Gordon wants to win for them.
These guys work so hard. You hate it for them. Not all the guys on this team have experienced what Ive experienced, Gordon said.
I go through the same thing with my wife. She hasnt experienced what its like to win a championship and the whole banquet experience as a champion. I want to share that with her and my family so bad. Sometimes the people around me get more frustrated and theyre like why arent you more frustrated? I am but I have experienced great success and I have nothing left to prove.
I can go back through the years and have those great memories and know what its been like. I can see where it can balance itself out over time.