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AUTO RACING

Jeff Gordon is refocused on winning

He hasn't won since October of 2007 but he's pleased with his start to 2009, including Sunday's second-place finish at Fontana.

February 23, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

They circled the Fontana track in lock step for the final 20 laps, Matt Kenseth ahead and Jeff Gordon seemingly tethered behind him, Gordon trying everything he knew to coax his Chevrolet to overcome the tight handling that would be his undoing in Sunday's Auto Club 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

Kyle Busch, twice a winner in support races here Saturday but a distant third Sunday, marveled at the spectacle unfolding before him and a crowd estimated at 78,000 on a gray afternoon that became a mild and occasionally damp night.

"I had the best seat in the house for that battle, man," Busch said. "That was pretty cool to see them racing like that. It was a good show for the fans. That was cool, being able to watch two superstars being able to put on a show like that."

This show ended for Gordon without a victory, as has every race he's driven since he triumphed at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., on Oct. 13, 2007. Kenseth, fearful Gordon might pass him, instead held on to win by 1.463 seconds, boosted by a superbly coordinated pit crew that saved him valuable fractions of long seconds.

Kenseth became the first Cup driver to win the opening two races of the season since Gordon won at Daytona and Rockingham in 1997. But Gordon, the four-time Sprint Cup champion, clearly took his runner-up finish as a moral victory. And maybe it was because it left him feeling "pumped" about a season that began last week with a 13th-place finish in the Daytona 500, an event he has won three times.

Gordon, 37, said he's "head and shoulders" above where he was a year ago, more sure of himself and his Hendrick Motorsports team.

He said crew chief Steve Letarte had restructured the engineering group and modified the cars and listened more closely to what he wanted. He, in turn, worked on himself and his conditioning routine, modifying it to address chronic back problems.

"I've worked harder over this off-season getting myself in shape than I have in a long time," said Gordon, whose 81 career wins rank him sixth on the all-time list. "I'm refocused."

That helped, as did getting more accustomed to being a dad. His daughter, 20-month-old Ella Sofia, adoringly watched his post-race news conference from the lap of her mother, Ingrid.

But none of those changes would have added up to anything if Gordon hadn't rediscovered his competitiveness. That, he said, is where he has made the most progress over the past winless year.

"It's called getting beat and not liking it," Gordon said, smiling.

He led Sunday for 64 laps. Kenseth led for 84 and Gordon teammate Jimmie Johnson, who dominated early but faded to ninth, led for 74. Gordon said he knew with about 20 laps left that he probably wouldn't overtake Kenseth, but he persevered.

"I ran as hard as I could and had a great race," he said. "I'm really proud of this team. It's a great start to the season."

He even had praise for Kenseth, which hasn't always been the case.

They were involved in a confrontation in March 2006, after contact between their cars on the final lap of a race at the Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway led to Gordon dropping from third to 21st.

Kenseth claimed the encounter was accidental and approached Gordon on pit road, apparently to make peace. Gordon shoved him before the two were separated. Gordon was fined $10,000 and put on probation for several months.

That seemed forgotten Sunday. "I have so much respect for Matt," Gordon said. "We've had our differences over time, but I've always had a ton of respect for what kind of race car driver he is. You can say that the pit crew won him the race tonight, but Matt didn't make one mistake.

"I put a lot of heat on him. I drove as hard as I've driven in a long time. He didn't make any mistakes. Maybe one little slip-up, but it just wasn't enough for me to do anything with him."

Still, he believes that elusive next win is out there, somewhere, maybe not far off.

"I just feel good when I get in the car," he said. "The car is driving good. It's just starting off right. I think we only have room for improvement."

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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