Over the years, Jeff Gordon has learned just how rewarding, difficult, thrilling and disappointing a NASCAR Sprint Cup career can be.
He has taken those lessons to heart and used them to make the most of every opportunity that he earns. At 41, some men might be far from their prime. But the four-time champion enters this year with an optimistic outlook with an attitude and enthusiasm that all those around him are embracing.
Can he win that elusive fifth title this year? With the addition of the Generation 6 car, the momentum of a 2012 season that offered several bright moments and the added boost from winning that season-finale, one would be hard-pressed to bet against Gordon. He and crew chief Alan Gustafson always bear watching perhaps more this season than in recent years.
Why? Partly because of NASCARs new model car.
Gordon spent the preseason explaining how and why he felt the car fit him well. He backed that up in snaring the outside pole position for Sundays Daytona 500 (Noon ET on FOX).
This is big, to be on the front row at Daytona, Gordon says. It's an accomplishment in itself just because of how many people put so much hard work into it, not just from our team but all the teams that are out here. When you have all winter long to prepare, you have the biggest race of the year as your first race, there's a lot of effort that goes into those two laps.
I'm very proud of my team. Very proud of Hendrick engines, to see how well the new Chevy SS and Hendrick engines performed today was fantastic. We're here to win the Daytona 500. Sitting on the front row is a great step towards accomplishing that goal.
Before he even took that lap, Gordon carefully tried to explain just why he loves this car so much and how he felt it could benefit him personally much more than the previous model.
I look at this race car and see where were starting at with this car and it feels good, he said. ... It drives good, its forgiving, its got a great aerodynamic balance as well as grip level to it. Weve got a lot of tracks weve got to drive this car at to figure out its characteristics but so far, Im a big fan. I love it. I like whats happening underneath the car, like the body style and I think the teams and crew chiefs say the same thing.
Not all, though, find that it fits like a glove.
Gordon seems to find that it does. He brings the enthusiasm of a younger driver finding his way in the sport with the veteran knowledge of how to make that work for him heading into the year.
And while Gustafson says that Gordon is always upbeat with the team, he also points out just how valuable an attitude like the drivers is for a team overall.
A veteran of the sport himself, Gustafson also prepared and is optimistic entering the season.
He, too, has learned from both the positive and negative moments in his career.
I think every year of my career I look back and you learn so much and I look back and say, Man, if we wouldve, couldve, should have, he says. I do feel like last year was probably the first year in my career that I felt like our performance on the track and sheer speed of the car was as competitive as really anybody and we significantly underachieved on the results and that was frustrating. At the end of the day can you say we had some unfortunate circumstances? Yeah, caution at Martinsville, unfortunate circumstance. Loose wheel at Dover. It was just a mistake.
Thats what Ive really tried to focus on is maintain that high performance, which is extremely taxing, but at the same time to maintain that high performance weve got to get that consistency and efficiency and eliminate those mistakes.
Confidence and consistency. Thats the theme that already has this team in front of much of the crowd.
Certainly, its just one run. But the attitude is about more than that.
It was noticeable in the preseason, as Gordon talked during media appearances.
It was obvious Sunday when he took his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and almost matched Danica Patricks stunning pole-winning lap.
And, unless things change, it should be obvious throughout much of the season as Gordon tries to once more make the Chase for the Sprint Cup and challenge for the title.
Unlike some drivers, hes not making bold predictions. He admits to confidence, but is far from boastful about his potential.
Hes simply brimming with excitement for the season to get really under way.
And relying on those years of experience to help Gordon and his group handle whatever comes their way.
I think when youre in the sport as long as Ive been, youre going to go through your ups and downs, he says. Weve had tremendous, if you want to call it, racing luck or fortune over the years, so last year kind of evened things out. Im just so excited about Alan Gustafson leading this team, hes a fantastic crew chief. We had very fast race cars last year. We did climb and claw our way into the Chase; it wasnt pretty but we did it.
I think that really gave us a lot of strength as a team to build on. Even though the Chase didnt quite go our way, we still had very strong runs and, of course, ended the season with the win in Homestead. With this new Chevy SS now thats a race car. That just looks like a fast car sitting there. I think thats going to energize the fans, the sport and I think the teams are equally excited Theres no doubt in my mind our team can go out there and battle for the championship.