By Brian Howard
The 2005 race season may be over for Jeff Gordon.
But after his recent weeks on the racetrack, it looks as though the former NASCAR champion could be poised for a promising 2006 championship run for the Hendrick Motorsports team.
“I feel like our 2006 started when this Chase started,” Gordon, who captured $236,836 after placing second in Sunday's Pro Bass Shops/MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, said. “By not making the Chase, we were able to really regroup, make a bunch of changes, not to just personnel, but with race cars in itself.”
Gordon posted his 73rd career victory two weeks ago in Martinsville and the four-time champion finished second Sunday. In 26 starts prior to Sunday's race, Gordon had four wins, one pole, 10 top-fives and 15 top 10s. He has led the most laps on four occasions at the Atlanta Motor Speedway for a total of 975, the most by any active driver.
Perhaps the biggest difference for Gordon came with a mid-season change. Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte, who has spent years in the Hendrick organization, most recently working as Gordon's car chief under former crew chief Robbie Loomis, have been able to communicate and execute positive changes.
Although he is out of the Chase for the NEXTEL Cup Championship, Gordon has reached the 11th spot in the points race.
“I haven't even paid attention to 11th-place in points,” Gordon said. “We're not in the top 10 battling for the championship. It doesn't really matter where we finish. It's where we finish each race to get ourselves prepared for next year. I'm just so happy we've been making gains and it feels like we're going in the right direction.”
Gordon is 42 points behind Jamie McMurray in the race for the 11th spot, which carries a $1 million bonus as a reward, as well as a trip across the stage at the year-end awards in New York.
With only four top-10 finishes in the final 16 races leading up to the Chase, and the best of those was a sixth-place finish at Bristol - Gordon and Letarte have a lot of reasons to be enthused.
“We've had a couple tests come up since the Chase began and those tests have been very valuable for us,” Gordon said. “When the season is going on, you can't make major changes because you've got too many guys you're battling with for points and you don't want to make huge changes.
“Once we missed the Chase, then we were able to go out there and change all kinds of things and it's kind of a trial and error. We can try something major and if it is no good, then its not really going to affect us that much. But if we make gains, then we are moving in the right direction. And I feel like we've been really making gains here lately.”
If Sunday's second-place finish wasn't proof enough, Gordon looks to be on the verge of another solid year as he prepares for the Chase in 2006.