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Muscle men: Jeff Gordon's pumping iron, just like teammate Mark Martin. And Gordon says he's in the best shape ever


Jeff Gordon appears on the verge of finally snapping that long losing streak (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   This is a broken record: Jeff Gordon is still winless…..in well over a year.
   And if the breakout doesn't come in Sunday's Bristol 500, well, it probably won't come at Texas in a couple of weeks.
   Yes, Martinsville could be the charm for Gordon. Here too.
   But Texas – now that's the biggie for Gordon, who has rarely run well there, and who needs to get over the hump at that place.
   Last fall Gordon wound up second at Texas. "But I am not going to base anything off last year, because even when we finished second, it was fuel mileage, and we were only about a 12th to 15th-place car," Gordon says. "But we made huge improvements from the first race.
    "To me, we are just a different team with different race cars right now. We've just made such huge progress that I'm really optimistic. Texas is one of those places that is on my radar. I want to conquer it. I want to turn things around.
   "I don't want to go there and wonder how we are going to run or have any doubts.
    "I want to go there with a positive attitude…especially the second race there (a key championship chase event)…and know we are going to be competitive.
   "With what we have seen already on the 1-1/2-mile tracks, the way the cars are driving, the way the team is performing, I am looking forward to Texas. The things we are doing are going to even work possibly better at Texas than some of the places we have been to."
   Certainly Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte would like to go to Texas with a win already under their belts.
   There has been criticism of Letarte during Gordon's winless streak, but it's largely unjustified. The car-of-tomorrow simply doesn't suit Gordon's driving style.


The toughest ticket in NASCAR...and promoter Jeff Byrd is working hard to keep it that way (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  And Gordon insists he doesn't listen to the critics: "I don't know that I paid a whole lot of attention to the outside criticism.
   "Just talking to Steve  -- we had some real heart-to-hearts last year about where we stood with the team, with our setups, with our race cars, what we needed to do, each of us, what we thought of the team.
   "We just shared a lot of those conversations as well with Rick Hendrick, Ken Howes, and Doug Duchardt (the team's competition bosses). We had a lot of conversations about 'What are we missing? Where are we off? What are our strong suits?'
    "It was just about really making some fairly significant changes. The first step was how we went about the engineering at the race track…and bringing in two engineers. That was the first step to turn the corner for us.
    "Steve has always done a fantastic job, it is just about having the tools and the confidence.
    "And I didn't have the confidence in the car I needed.
    "Then this back issue (Gordon, like many veterans, suffers from back pain). I was not only not confident in the car, I wasn't feeling 100 percent.
   "So over the off-season, I got away and got away from it and relaxed."
   And also dramatically changed his workout program. Perhaps giving some credit to muscleman teammate Mark Martin.
   Gordon says his wife Ingrid was the one who put the fire in him: "I have been telling her I wanted to put some time on my calendar to work out and go to the gym. She said 'You are wasting your time. You're not going to do it. You are not going to be committed. The only way you are going to do it is get with a trainer.'
   "I finally bit the bullet and did it…and this guy is kicking my butt.
   "I feel the best I have felt in a long time.
    "I am following that up with some back specialists.
    "The combination has made me a whole new person.
    "When I come to the track, I am ready to go.
     "I feel good, I feel stronger.
    "And I can't wait to get in this race, because it's a physical race and I feel I am in the best shape I have been in in a long, long time."

Bristol Motor Speedway's jammed pit road. Better qualify well, to get a good spot (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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