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Guy Noir's Post-race teardown: Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte are getting their groove back


The sweet smile of success (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   For Jeff Gordon this is the way it's supposed to be.
   This is the way it used to be.
   Before the slump.
   Before Gordon went dry.
   From October 2007 till Thursday here, the biggest driver in NASCAR has been winless.
   So let him crow a little about his win over new Chevy 'teammate' Tony Stewart and long-time teammate Jimmie Johnson.
   A one-two-three afternoon for boss man Rick Hendrick.
   "Doesn't matter if it's a qualifying race or the Daytona 500 -- any confidence builder and momentum we can get is a positive," the upbeat Gordon said.
   Crew chief Steve Letarte, badmouthed by some for last season's winless streak, said tires were good and good for the racing: "Goodyear brought a great tire for racing.  I think it has a little more grip than last year.
   "That allows for good racing.  It also allows for some good pit strategy  -- Everybody put on four tires."
   "You got to give Goodyear credit -- for doing a little bit different design with the tire, that makes the tire wear, and gives guys confidence, because it has good grip at the beginning of the run," Gordon said. "It makes everybody really get after it…especially if there's 10 to go.
    "The drivers are playing a role because the cars are slipping and sliding around….which brings the crew chief and engineers into play as well.
    "I think this car was designed and built for Daytona and Talladega. 
    "Sometimes we don't really care for it a lot at some of the other tracks, but it makes up for it at Daytona."
   Of course others, notably Kyle Busch, winner of Thursday's second 150, was again critical of it, as ill-handling.
     But Gordon insists "Actually, it handles good.  It's just that it's punching such a big hole (in the air) that it really makes it interesting when you're behind other cars. 
    "But it makes it a heck of a lot of fun.
    "A lot of passing. Two and three-wide. Cars sideways. Bouncing off one another a little bit.
    "I don't think the show can get any better for the fans than what we've seen so far. But it probably will Sunday. "
   Gordon admits going winless put a strain on everyone.
   "But because of the pressure we felt, from being winless, it's important for us to gain some momentum and confidence that we're doing the right things," Gordon said.
   "That's what this does -- It puts a smile on everybody's face."
   Letarte, Gordon says, is still his man: "I believe 100 percent in this guy.
    "I think 2007 proved it. We just got behind last year. 
    "We can't get that back, but we can learn from it, grow from it, and use that to motivate us."
   It all reminds Gordon of the 2000 season, and then that 2001 title: "Even though we won three races in 2000, I felt it was one of our worst seasons. 
   "But we came out of that and won the championship the next year -- because it motivated us."
   "The biggest lesson I learned last year," Letarte said, "is that it's very hard to evaluate a program when you have a successful program like we had in '07.
    "Now we can change things and feel comfortable about it. That's no different than what we did in '05  --  We missed the chase, so it was very easy to change anything.  Nothing was sacred. 
    "I'll take the brunt of it: maybe I got back on my heels and made some things a little too sacred, that didn't need to be.
   "Now we'll change anything to it go fast."
   "But last year I don't feel I was on my best game," Gordon added. 
    "My back has been a bit of an issue. So I've been working out, trying to make that stronger. So I have no excuses.
    "We had opportunities to win last year, and it was on my shoulders -- They gave me the car, the track position, and everything else.  There becomes a point where the driver's got to pull it off.
    "Last July here is a perfect example.  I feel I let the team down.  We could have won that race.
   "We got a great car and a great team right here in Daytona.  We've got to capitalize on that and seize that moment.
    "I don't want to let these guys down."




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