Staff Writer, Tennessean.com
CONCORD, N.C. Jeff Gordon says there was an upside to last years down season.
After five years in the spotlight, NASCARs golden boy got a chance to catch his breath.
During the annual Motorsports Media Tour yesterday, Gordon was asked if it was tough not being the center of attention last year.
"Tough? Are you kidding? That was the best part of 2000," Gordon said. "Winning three championships in four years can take a lot out of you, mentally and physically. I learned there is so much involved, and not just on the racetrack.
"I wouldnt say I took the year off, but there were times when it was nice to sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet."
But, he added, he doesnt want to make a habit of being just another face in the crowd.
"Im done with that now," he said.
Gordon didnt entirely disappear from the radar screen. By most standards he had a good season three wins, 22 top 10s and over $2.5 million more bucks in the bank. He set NASCAR records for most consecutive road course wins (six) and became the youngest driver (at 28) to win 50 races in a career.
Thats good, but Gordon had been used to great. Most important, he wasnt in his usual place at the front of the Winston Cup championship chase. He got behind early, never mustered a challenge, and finished a dismal (for him) ninth.
"We got off to a slow start and it took us a while to build some momentum," Gordon said. "It was frustrating at times, but its not going to happen again."
Gordon said last years experience, "will make us a stronger team this year. We overcame a lot of adversity, and when you go through that you come out stronger. We were better at the end, proving we can overcome anything."
Last year was Gordons first full season in Winston Cup without sage crew chief Ray Evernham.
Also, team owner Rick Hendrick said mistakes were made back at the shop, causing Gordons Chevrolets to lack their past pep and dependability.
Gordon said he hasnt forgotten the formula for winning.
"Weve won races and weve won championships, and we know how to get there," he said. "You know that no matter what, youre going to come out of it. Were a far better team now than we were this time last year."
Teammate Terry Labonte said Gordon never allowed his frustrations to show.
"Jeffs mood was always the same," he said. "It may not have seemed like that, but it was."
Labonte had his own problems missing two races due to injury, which snapped a record streak of 655 consecutive starts.
"I feel great now," said Labonte, a two-time champion. "Im ready to go."
The third driver in the Hendrick Motorsports stable, Jerry Nadeau, got his first career win in the season finale at Atlanta.
"Jeff, Terry and I work well together," Nadeau said.
"We have a good personal relationship, and I think that carries over to our performance on the track. We share everything on this team, and thats why Im hoping Jeff and Terry have great seasons.
"That means Ill be right there with them."