There was a time when Jeff Gordon wondered if he'd ever win another race.
His personal life was in shambles, and a long losing streak had the four-time series champion doubting himself for the first time in his storied NASCAR career. The wins were few and far between, and the consistent title contender had turned into a perpetual also-ran.
Now five years later, Gordon can't be stopped - he's ticking off wins, marching toward another title and, no coincidence here, has never been happier.
With his sixth win of the season Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Gordon opened a healthy 68-point lead in the Nextel Cup points standings. He then celebrated with friends and family, including his only sister, Kimberly Coykendall, who through bad timing had missed the first 80 victories of his Cup career.
As he approaches his first wedding anniversary with wife Ingrid and delights in the joys of fatherhood with infant daughter Ella, Gordon insists he'll be satisfied no matter where he winds up in the final season standings.
"I'm going to tell you right now, I don't care what happens with the championship. This is my year," Gordon said. "Even with the wins that we've had so far, the kind of year on and off the racetrack, for me personally, it's just been the most incredible year."
One that seems destined to end with the fifth championship that has eluded NASCAR's Golden Boy for the past six seasons.
The 22-year-old kid who sobbed in Victory Lane after his first Cup win here back in 1994 matured into one of the most dominant drivers in series history. He reeled off 56 wins and stormed to four championships in a seven year span from 1995 to 2001.
Along the way, though, his picture-perfect marriage to former NASCAR model Brooke Sealey crumbled. He was 30, at the top of his profession and had more money than he ever dreamed possible. But living in Florida, isolated from family, friends and the NASCAR community, he realized just how miserable he was.
The couple entered into a nasty, public divorce in 2002 that captivated the garage area and coincided with the worst losing streak of his career. The one driver who contended each and every week was in a nearly yearlong slump, failing to visit Victory Lane for an unheard of span of 31 races.
But when he finally broke the streak, using a cold-hearted bump-and-run on Rusty Wallace with three laps to go at Bristol, it hardly kickstarted his comeback. He knocked down wins every now and again, but wasn't quite a threat for the title and missed the Chase for the championship in 2005.
Team owner Rick Hendrick responded with an immediate crew chief change, promoting one-time parts clerk Steve Letarte into the biggest job of his short career. Letarte came to Hendrick as a 15-year-old enrolled in a work-study program, and spent nine years working his way up to the most pressure-packed job in the company.
They instantly clicked and have been on a high-speed comeback ever since.
"Steve waited a year, could have been a crew chief earlier, to wait for Jeff Gordon, and that chemistry (between them) has been unbelievable," Hendrick said.
Gordon has nine wins in his 77 races with Letarte, and they have been flawless this season while building a lead of more than 300 points during the "regular season." It was all wiped out when the Chase began, but Gordon has quickly taken command of the title hunt.
With five races remaining, it looks to be Gordon's title to lose, and Hendrick believes it's a direct correlation to his personal life.
"I think I see a real happy Jeff Gordon," Hendrick said. "I think that his life outside of racing is probably the best it's ever been, especially with his little girl."
This resurgence has helped Gordon continue his assault on the record books. He passed the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth on the career wins list this spring, and with 81 career victories, he's poised to shoot up the standings.
He needs just three wins to pass Cale Yarborough for fifth, and four victories will slide him past Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Gordon will never touch Richard Petty's mark of 200 victories, but there's no reason to doubt he can claim No. 2 and pass David Pearson's 105 wins.
Gordon didn't want to speculate when asked Saturday night if he had 25 wins left in his tank.
"A couple years ago, I didn't think I had any left in me," Gordon said. "So right now, we're just having one of those spectacular seasons. We're just going to try to finish it out and see what we get, and next year is a whole new season. Who knows?"
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