JOLIET, Illinois — Jeff Gordon hopped off a plane, his typical polished self, ready for a full day of appearances to promote NASCAR's championship race. Then he glanced down at his black polo and saw for the first time the thick, white streaks of deodorant that had soiled his shirt.
"What a rookie move!" he crowed before he bee-lined for the closest bathroom.
Gordon had been rushed that morning. His wife, Ingrid, had been in New York City at Fashion Rocks, and the NASCAR superstar was home alone with his two small children. It made for a frenzied morning of getting Ella and Leo up and out the door to school, while also getting himself ready for a whirlwind media tour through Toronto.
The end result was a shirt stained with deodorant streaks on a driver known for an aplomb that made him the first NASCAR star to dazzle the suits on Madison Ave.
The height of his success was almost 20 years ago, when a young Gordon collected 40 wins in four seasons and won championships in 1995, 1997 and 1998. By the time he added his fourth championship, in 2001, Gordon could do no wrong.
He had a pretty wife, an appeal that brought in new NASCAR fans and opened doors that drivers had never been through before: Gordon is the first and only NASCAR driver to host "Saturday Night Live."
But life has changed so much in the 13 years since. Gordon went through a public divorce, eventually remarried and started a family. And on the track, well, the wins were no longer so easy.
Now, at 43 years old, his passion for racing and winning has been revived. Gordon wants nothing more than to win his fifth series title — the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway — and he has the full support of his family in chasing his goal. When Ingrid, who didn't know Gordon when he was an annual threat for the championship, asked him what it would take to win a title, Gordon explained that it needed his full commitment.
"Meetings and testing and being well rested, trying not to have too many distractions," Gordon said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There's a fine line between balancing that out and being a good parent and a good race car driver. Those moments come where the team schedules a test and you'd be all, 'Oh, well we had this scheduled is there any way you can move that?' But Ingrid is like 'OK, you do what you have to do.'
"When we haven't won championships, we've had conversations of 'What could I have done to help? What can the team do?' all these things, and some of those conversations lead to 'You know, there's some things that I can do that would improve my commitment to the team.'"
These weren't the kind of problems Gordon had to consider in the first half of his career. He won nearly 60 races before his 30th birthday, and really could do no wrong. He moved to Florida with his first wife and lived far away from the Hendrick Motorsports crew doing the grunt work on his race car.
"When you are winning all the time, you can get away with a lot of stuff," Gordon said. "When I moved to Florida, I'd come to the shop every couple of weeks, and people hardly ever saw me. As long as we won one every fifth race, I don't care if I don't see you again for a year."
But when the wins tapered off, the problems began.
"When you are not winning, it's all about the details, and 'Where is Jeff? Is he working as hard as we're working? Is he as committed as we are?'" Gordon said. "I don't ever want there to be questions about my commitment."
There were problems, though, particularly midway through last season when he and crew chief Alan Gustafson were at odds. They were winless, struggling to get into Chase contention, and neither was satisfied with the performance.
It took a difficult heart-to-heart talk between the two to strengthen the relationship and get the No. 24 rolling in the right direction. Gordon earned his only win last year in late October, but the team has been incredibly consistent this season. Gordon goes into the Chase tied for the second seed, with three wins this season, including a victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the 20th anniversary of his win in the inaugural Brickyard 400.
Gordon led the points 17 of the 26 weeks in NASCAR's regular season and has an average finish of 10th this year.
"I've had four crew chiefs now and with all of them, I've said 'Don't treat me like I'm a multi-time champion who has won a lot. You've got to treat me like you'd treat any driver. You do what it takes. Calm me down on the radio, motivating me on the radio, off the track. Say, 'I need this out of you.' Don't hold me to a higher standard,'" Gordon said.
"And every one of them holds me to a different standard. So you have to have those moments where somebody like Alan gets to that point and says 'I've probably spoiled him a little bit, now I'm mad, now we need to have a conversation.'"
That was the turning point for Gordon and his team, and his confidence has been soaring all season. He is certain he is a viable threat to win this championship.
Only Gordon has never won in the Chase format — all his titles came under the old straight points system — and this year's format has been dramatically overhauled. There are three rounds of eliminations that will set up a four-driver shootout in November's season finale.
He's always believed that no matter the format, the best team wins, and Gordon is adamant that title belongs to him this year.
"I've never wanted anything more than this," he said. "Partially because it's eluded me. I've pretty much done everything in this sport except for winning Kentucky, and maybe I don't have seven or eight championships, but my bucket list is the Sprint Cup, under this format, to prove to myself and others that we can do it."
Gordon joked at the start of the year that if he were to win the title, he'd immediately retire and go be a full-time family man. He laughs now at all the attention that comment garnered, but doesn't regret making the statement.
"My whole reason was for saying that was because I really want to win a Sprint Cup. That's how much I want to win one," he said. "If somebody told me right now, today, you can win the Sprint Cup but in your acceptance speech you have to say 'This is it for me,' I would do it. I would do it."
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