RICHMOND, Va. - As he dined on sirloin medallions and crab at an upscale Richmond steakhouse Thursday night, Nextel Cup driver Jeff Gordon was in an open, light-hearted mood.
He laughed when told a Jeff Foxworthy joke: "The real reason they boo Jeff Gordon is because he can enunciate." He grinned at the rumors he'd stirred by attending the Formula One Spanish Grand Prix. "I told you all years ago I wasn't going to F-1, but it was a lot of fun to see those cars," he said.
And he entertained his guests with tales of his vacation with fellow driver and friend Jimmie Johnson and Johnson's fiancee, Chandra Janway.
Among his stories, one about his Barcelona Hotel "room" - an ultra-modern building in Spain.
"You had to take three different elevators to get to the room," he said. "And it was like an apartment. It must have been 3,000 square feet. It had an upstairs and a downstairs. Upstairs were two bedrooms that were totally surrounded by walls of windows, you could see the beach and all over the city. It was so wonderful you never wanted to leave the hotel."
Now here he is in Richmond, staying in his motor coach, on a paved slab of asphalt outside a small dusty, half-mile oval, one of the smallest Nextel Cup Series' circuits on the schedule.
But he is still enthused.
Gordon, the four-time Cup champion, is back in the title chase. It is no small feat in a sport filled with "young guns" who make winning every week harder than the week before.
And every day at the racetrack, Gordon finds himself squeezed between the competition. In the NASCAR garages, teams are aligned according to the points standing. Gordon, in third place, looks to his left and sees leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson, second in points; to his right are Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, fourth and fifth, respectively.
But Gordon, once a young gun himself, is 32 now and has no desire to go back.
"I do feel young," he said. "And the last five weeks I've felt even younger. But I like being more experienced. I like being a little smarter, a little more patient. I feel if I can get all those things lined up on a given Sunday I can win."
Tonight, he will start 13th, on the inside of Row 7 in the Chevy American Revolution 400. During qualifying yesterday, a newly surfaced track made treacherous by a hot sun mystified a number of drivers, who hesitated to hustle their cars on the slippery surface.
A rookie, Brian Vickers, turned the fastest lap, a track record 129.983 mph., in his No. 25 Chevrolet to win his first career pole.
Ryan Newman and his No. 12 Dodge ran 129.970 and will start on the outside of the front row.
For Gordon, it has never been about how others perform, but how he and his team perform.
He won three weeks ago at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, when he was slick enough to be in front of Earnhardt when the caution flag came out and virtually ended the race.
And he won two weeks ago at California Speedway, where he was simply better than everyone at the finish.
Those two races sum up the contrasts in Gordon's career. Richard Petty once said when Gordon was winning with regularity and being booed, that what he needed to do was go on a losing streak, "Once he does that," Petty said, "fans will pull for him and they'll stay with him."
But it hasn't worked that way. He's been on losing streaks, and been cheered when he's broken them. But always the boos come back. When he won at Talladega last month it ended a winless streak that dated to last October in Atlanta.
At Talladega, the scene was bedlam. Fans, incensed by a race ended under yellow with their favorite son in second place, booed and hurled beer and soda cans on the track.
In the thick of it, Gordon not only endured the mayhem but embraced the role of spoiler. But, he said this week, his actions at Talladega had nothing to do with being a villain.
"We were in Talladega, Alabama," Gordon said, explaining his elation. "You know the fans there were huge Dale Earnhardt fans and now huge Dale Jr. fans. Everybody is rooting for them.
"You also know DEI dominates restrictor plate races. You know Junior has won four of the last five races there and his teammate won the other. You know how difficult it is to beat them. I was going to take any opportunity to win that race - no matter how. The fact people were throwing cans, it didn't matter to me. It was awesome. It was a great moment. I was happy to be stopped out there with cans bouncing off my car."
A week later, he was just as happy to produce a low-key victory in California, where he is a very popular driver.
"When you win, it restores you," said Gordon. "It gives you the feeling, `I haven't lost anything. Just keep working.' The same thing happens to the team. Robbie [crew chief Robbie Loomis] starts thinking, `Hey, I'm not doing anything wrong. Let's just keep utilizing the resources.' The communication improves. The confidence improves. You know it doesn't mean you are necessarily going to win a third straight, but you believe you have the chance to."