Hendrick Motorsports is a reporter's 2009 season storyline dream.
There's of course Jimmie Johnson, trying to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four straight Sprint Cup Series championships.
|Jeff Gordon feels good about his 2009 prospects. (US Presswire)|
Then there's the ageless Mark Martin, who after two seasons of a limited schedule at DEI feels refreshed enough to tackle one more full season in quest of an elusive Cup title.
And buried at the bottom of this superstar pile is Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion who somehow is flying under the radar.
Which is perfectly fine with him.
"All I want to do is get in the spotlight for winning races," Gordon laughed.
That's something Gordon didn't do in 2008, a season in which he was shut out of victory lane for the first time since his rookie year of 1993.
It was a trying campaign that started off poorly and got worse before a midseason turnaround that has Gordon optimistic for the coming year.
"Last year we could handle it," Gordon said. "We do it for another year and that's going to get a little bit tougher to take because I think you go two seasons in a row and that's when things start to sink in a little bit more of 'Where am I at in my career and where are we at as a team?' So, I'm certainly hoping we don't have to deal with that but, I don't want to think about that right now."
What Gordon does want to think about is starting the season off on a good note at Daytona.
With NASCAR's testing ban in effect, drivers won't have any time on the 2.66-mile track until practice for this weekend's Budweiser Shootout. But Gordon is not worried about being a little rusty once he does get back behind the wheel.
"Well, the biggest reason that I'm really fired up about Daytona this year is without the testing, I felt like we had the best car here last July," Gordon said of his run in last summer's 4th of July weekend Daytona race. "I made a couple mistakes and cost us the race, but we had, I felt, great power and the best-handling car, for sure, in the race."
"Now, February is always a little bit different than July because the temperatures are a little bit different, track conditions are a little bit different. But with no changes and no testing, we've got a great package to be able to come down here, and I feel like over the offseason I visited our engine shop, and I'm really excited about some things that they've got going on there, too. I feel like we've gotten more power."
"I think Daytona, we've got a great opportunity to come here and be very competitive and have a shot at winning another one."
Although the offseason testing ban has kept teams away from the track, the winter hasn't been spent sitting idle by any means.
Engineers and crew chiefs have pored over information and data from last season hoping to find the right mix once they arrive in Daytona.
"This is the first time I've ever seen our team, the engineers, everybody sitting down and just really being able to go through some data and analyze things," Gordon said. "You get this group of individuals that are as sharp as they are and you give them time to rethink things or try to improve on what we've already had, and I think that can be a pretty dangerous combination, so I'm extremely excited."
Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, is equally excited about the prospects for the coming year. Despite having to deal with the No. 24 team's winless season as well as mounting pressure and speculation he would be replaced, Letarte is up for the challenge of 2009.
"I'm proud to deal with that," Letarte said. "I took this job knowing all the details of this job. I'm a Boston Red Sox fan, and you coach for the New York Yankees or the Red Sox, you better take them to the World Series, and you know that going in. I knew when I took over as Jeff Gordon's crew chief we were expected to win races and contend for championships and win championships. I can tell everyone out there that doesn't believe it, the toughest critic in that garage area of me is me."
Even though Gordon and Letarte seemed to figure out the new Sprint Cup car as last season wore on and showed improvement in the final stretch of races, the overall effort still leaves a bitter taste in everyone's mouth.
"There's no one more disappointed with our performance last year than I am, and there's no one in this building or in this complex [at Hendrick] that's going to work harder to make sure it doesn't happen again than I will," Letarte said.
Gordon chooses to put last year behind as quickly as possible and focus his energy on 2009.
"No matter what kind of season we have, have won 13 races or no races, you always look at what you can do to be better for the next season, and that's the way I'm looking at it this season is I'm not dwelling on the fact that we didn't win. I'm not sitting here saying we're not capable of winning," he said. "I think that we are."