Gordon's new sense of appreciation

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

DAYTONA, Fla. – The end is closer than the beginning for Jeff Gordon, but let's not put him in the ground just yet.

By most standards, Gordon had a solid 2008, and two years ago he had one of the best seasons of his career, which is saying something. But he didn't win a title, and when you're Jeff Gordon, four-time champion, that's how success is measured.

Still, after seven years, the drive for five – championships that is – keeps chugging along, though the mood of that road trip has gone from Vegas-baby! excitement to are-we-there-yet exhaustion.

Along the way, Gordon has won 23 races, changed crew chiefs twice and brought in an unknown named Johnson to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. Off the track, he's gone through a divorce, gotten re-married and become a father.

It's pretty obvious – Gordon isn't the wonder kid anymore. He's traded that moniker for one of eldest statesman. So while Kyle Busch is answering questions about his breakout, eight-win season, Gordon is talking about his decision to fly commercial in light of tough economic times.

Not that he needs to cut back – Gordon topped the $100 million mark in career winnings in 2008 – but it's what you do when you grow up and realize the value of a buck.

"My plane is probably between three and four thousand dollars per hour," he explained. "That’s what the total number would be if you look at pilots, storage, fuel, everything, and so I flew $69 [from New York City] to Charlotte. I’d say I saved a little bit.”

How much Gordon has left in his competitive tank is the real question. For 14 years, winning was a given. Then last season, for the first time since his first victory way back in 1993, Gordon didn't win a race, and that humbled him.

All 81 of his career wins suddenly took on more meaning. As it turns out, that number wasn't a perennial, guaranteed to grow every spring, summer or fall. Now, maybe more than ever, Gordon is motivated to win.

"I think more because when you’re coming up and you’re young you just don’t know what your future holds," he said. "You’re just driving and not thinking about it.

"But now I know what it is like to win and I appreciate it so much and worked so hard for all these years, so nothing is driving me more than the desire to win and the fact that we didn’t win last year.”

Desire is one thing, realizing it is another, and to realize success Gordon needs to gain a comfort level in the new car that he's yet to find.

It's no small point – the transition NASCAR asked its drivers to make last year from the old car to the Car of Tomorrow. Though not as dramatic as moving from open wheel to stock cars, drivers who have made that switch describe it like being an artist, transitioning from painting to sculpture. The basics are the same; the intricacies are quite different.

"When you’ve been in the sport as long as I have, it’s harder to adapt to changes," Gordon said. "The longer you’re in it, the harder it is to adapt to changes, so some of it is me adjusting my driving. I can’t change how I drive, but I can make some small adjustments."

Chances are Gordon will get back to victory lane this season. If he wins twice he'll tie Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time list. Three and he'll join Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third. Four and he'll stand alone, behind only Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105).

As for championships, catching Petty and Dale Earnhardt at seven is, in all probability, out of the question now, though that shouldn't be met with disappointment. The expectations placed on Gordon have always been ridiculously high. Maybe now we can see that and appreciate what Gordon has done instead of always wondering what he'll end up doing.

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