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Jeff Gordon, fresh off that Texas breakthrough, may be ready to slice-and-dice the competition


Jeff Gordon and car owner Rick Hendrick. Will Gordon brings that brace of Berettas here to Phoenix? (Photo:Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

     So is this Jeff 'The Machine' Gordon back for a reprise of early 2007, one of his finest 'regular' seasons ever?
    Well, Gordon did win here in the spring of 2007 – and that was a first-ever, long time coming, and it helped him on the way to a clear-cut 'regular' season title.
    Now that first-ever Texas trophy is in the Rick Hendrick shop.
    Certainly after that meandering 2008 season, forgettable as it was, with few real peaks and far too many valleys, it's about time Gordon  got back in the game. And it looks like he's coming back with a vengeance…that you can see in his eyes.
   Texas…well, even as long as this endless NASCAR season is, there are turning points, and for Gordon Texas looks like that milestone that could be the linchpin for another championship run.
    Not just because Gordon finally broke that Texas Motor Speedway jinx, with a solid victory last week, but because that track is key in the NASCAR championship chase – mark down Sunday Nov. 8th, because that's when this year's championship may well be determined.
     Gordon himself was almost letting the winless run get to him: "It's been a long streak, a lot of ups and downs, and tough times….
    "I knew we were going to get one eventually. We had some missed opportunities last season; even though we didn't have a great year there were still times we could have won…and that just keeps you driving, and driving hard."
   Still Gordon realized early last fall that something was missing, and he worked with crew chief Steve Letarte – who never appeared to let the criticism of a winless season get to him – to change up things.
    "At the end of the season I wrote Steve an e-mail…and we talked a lot," Gordon said. "I saw the progress being made in the final 10 races, with Steve's restructuring of the engineering and the team.
    "And it just fired me up.
    "This whole year has been like that, since Daytona – you can just see a different look in the guys' eyes, you sense a different effort being put out."
    This year's road to the championship looks like it will again feature teammate Jimmie Johnson – who was dogging Gordon down the stretch at Texas, in a remarkable rebound from a frustrating start – and Carl Edwards – who may well have won Texas if not for a slow pit stop the last time around.
  And it would be nice if good-guy Greg Biffle, who may have had the fastest car at Texas, can make it into this title hunt too.
  Johnson, going for a fourth title, which would match him with Gordon, seems to be feeling a bit of pressure this spring, for some reason. You'd think after three straight championships Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus could afford to accept an off-year, or a slow start, or just take a mental break from this grind – after all the big goal of the year's first 26 races is to hang in the top-12 and make the playoff cut.
   And at the moment the top nine of the current top-12 look pretty solid to make the cut.
   As disappointing as last season was for Gordon personally, and as busy as it was for Johnson in that title charge, Johnson says he kept an eye on his teammate: "Jeff is so good at holding his composure, and being a team leader.
    "Knowing him like I do, I could sense it bothered him. 
    "But Stevie and his guys really held together as a tight unit. You never heard any of those guys talk negatively.
    "I'm really impressed with Stevie's composure. It's not easy crew-chiefing a four-time champion, with the pressure that comes with it.  But he's kept his cool."
     For Letarte winning Texas "is just huge. It's just a huge momentum builder.
    "Now we need to make sure we do the right things to keep the momentum going."
   And that means here Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway.

Gordon's Phoenix breakthrough win, 2007 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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