The Philadelphia Daily News
Sitting in the audience at the annual NASCAR awards dinner in New York, Jeff Gordon observed the dais in the Waldorf-Astoria's grand ballroom. Bobby Labonte, this year's Winston Cup champion, was seated there with his team.
Gordon, a three-time Cup champion, knew the exhilarating emotions Labonte was feeling.
"(Car owner) Rick Hendrick and I were sitting there (saying), 'This is a great motivator, to get back to the (stage),' " Gordon said yesterday on a conference call. "It gets you re-energized."
It has been two years since Gordon won his last Cup title. This year, he was ninth in the points standings, with three victories.
"I feel really strong about the way we ended the season," he said. "Those three wins (during the year) showed we have a strong team. I don't think there was one particular place where we were weak."
Gordon said more race-to-race consistency will help him return to near the top of the standings.
He also had to endure a significant overhaul of his race team. Crew chief Ray Evernham left late last year to launch Dodge's re-entry into Winston Cup, and several members of the elite crew defected to Robert Yates Racing for this season.
"I look back at this time last year and there was so much uncertainty," Gordon said.
"We were losing people and gaining new people. We were putting new bodies on cars. It took us half the season to get caught up."
Like most drivers, Gordon is fired up about the new season that begins in February. That attitude will be reflected in a new paint scheme, replacing the familiar rainbow motif, on his DuPont-sponsored Chevrolet.
The new scheme, designed by racing artist Sam Bass, reminds Gordon of his early days of racing.
"When I was racing quarter midgets and go-karts, I used to have a flame paint scheme on those cars," he said.
"My helmet has actually been painted very similar to what the car is now."