LONG POND, Pa. -- More than half a dozen children from the Make A Wish Foundation assembled beside Jeff Gordon's team truck yesterday morning, waiting for the three-time Winston Cup Champion to make their dreams come true.
Gordon, 27, emerged and signed their autographs, patted their backs, gave a few hugs. The smile never left his face as he brought smiles to theirs.
A little while later, back in the truck, Gordon, who will start 17th at Pocono Raceway this afternoon in the Pocono 500, was asked to put this season in perspective, and he didn't answer immediately. It has been an unusual season.
The driver who has had virtually no bad luck for the past two years has been forced out of four races early. He has suffered his first serious injury in a racing accident. He is in the unfamiliar position of sixth in the Winston Cup standings, 349 points behind series leader Dale Jarrett.
"The accident made me think about things a little more," he said. "Seeing these children with Make A Wish -- I never thought I was indestructible, and I've always said I have more fear of being injured and having to live with a severe handicap than I have fear of dying.
"Going out there to be with those kids, it's hard for me, but it makes a rare good day for them. It brings a smile and it's rewarding for me to see them enjoying a day. It also makes me respect life and appreciate what I have. I live such a blessed life."
To the surprise of some, Gordon is not beating himself up over this season, which has been so much less than Gordon and his Rainbow Warriors are used to.
"Even if we won every race from here to the end, those other guys would still have to have problems," Gordon said. "Unless they have trouble or bad finishes all we can do is focus on ourselves and try to win as many as we can."
A year ago, Gordon tied a modern-day record with 13 victories and had everyone who was competing against him grumbling. Even NASCAR officials said Gordon's dominance wasn't particularly good for the sport. Officials didn't mind him winning a third of the races. What they minded was that no one else was running strong enough to challenge him.
That's no longer a problem.
"We set the bar very high," said Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham. "But this year, the competition has stepped up to it."
Dale Jarrett and his Robert Yates-owned team have been the class of the field so far. And as the series approaches the halfway point of the season, Jarrett, 42 and pursuing his first Winston Cup title, has little sympathy for Gordon's woes.
"It looks to me like he's having a season that the rest of us would call normal," Jarrett said. "What he's been experiencing the last two or three years are extraordinary seasons, and he's had enough of those. Someone else is going to set the standard this year, and it might as well be us."
Jarrett has only two wins, but he also has 11 finishes in the top five, 12 in the top 10 and only one race he failed to finish.
Gordon is tied with Jeff Burton for the lead in wins with three. But those wins have been hard to come by with mechanical failures and crashes, including the one in Texas where Gordon severely bruised his ribs, coming more frequently than trips to victory lane.
The luck that had augmented his skills a year ago seems to have deserted him.
"I believe in fate a little bit," he said. "Last year, we'd change two tires while everyone else changed four and we'd win. This year, we lose. Last year, nothing broke. This year, things have. There's no one to blame. And I think that's been a good thing. I remember a couple seasons that were worse than this."
During his early Sprint and Midget racing days, Gordon said he made big mistakes and wrecked cars, and his team made the wrong call on the chassis setups. His Winston Cup rookie year, he added, was even worse.
"That was my toughest year," he said. "I made rookie mistakes. I didn't know if I had what it takes. Every weekend, I was saying, `I don't know. I don't know.'
"I'm older now. I can handle it now. Ray and I look at the points, and to us this is an opportunity. This allows us to find out how strong we really are. Are we only good when everything goes our way or is our team strong enough to hang together, figure things out and prove how good we really are?"
Gordon smiled. He said his team is hanging together. No one is pointing any fingers, and the team is actually racing well. It's just not winning.
"I'm pretty easy at letting things like this roll off my back," he said. "I don't let them eat me up inside. I do get frustrated and disappointed, but the way I look at it, there's always next weekend."