Ask Jeff Gordon about fear and he gives you that old milk mustache smile that makes him the matinee idol of auto racing.
“I don’t feel fear when I’m in control of the car,” he said. “As long as I’m going in the direction I want to, there’s no fear. It’s when you lose control you feel fear.”
Sometimes, though, Gordon admits to a case of nerves like the ones he felt at Atlanta last month.
Locked in a three-way battle with Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin for the Winston Cup championship, Gordon hit a serious speed bump on the eve of the season’s final race.
“The morning before, I made as big a mistake as you can make,” Gordon said. “We had new tires. The car got away from me and we crashed.”
That left Gordon in his backup car for the race with no practice time, no laps on the car, starting dead last with Jarrett and Martin lurking around the lead.
“It put the championship in jeopardy,” Gordon said. “Going in, the pressure is on the leader. It’s his championship to win or lose. When that happened, I told them, ‘Now the pressure is on you guys.’
“I was nervous and concerned. My nerves were as high strung as ever, but I couldn’t show it. We had to be calm and go out and do our job. You can’t show that you’re scared. You can’t show any weakness.”
That is the essence of auto racing, the ability to stare down the other driver, convince him you can handle anything that comes your way.
This, though, would be tough.
“I’m in a backup car with no time to dial it in to make it competitive,” he said. “We’re sitting with no laps on a fresh track we haven’t raced on.”
Gordon finished 17th, just enough to clinch his second Winston Cup championship in three years. The year he missed, he was second behind teammate Terry Labonte.
He won 10 races this season, including the Daytona 500 and the Winston Million at Darlington and became the first driver in NASCAR history to earn more than $4 million in a single season. And he’s only 26.
In a sport whose image was built on hard-driving, pedal-to-the-metal guys like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Gordon is the new poster boy, equipped with boyish good looks and a fistful of endorsements.
There’s the milk mustache ad. There’s the soft drink sponsor and the ice cream sponsor and the sunglass sponsor. And on and on and on.
“I’m so overwhelmed the way things are going in my career,” Gordon said. “You never expect things will go this well this early.”
The bottom line, though, is still on the race track.
“I look forward to trying to win races and championships,” he said. “I want to drive for as long as I can be competitive. Who knows how long that can be. There are so many variables.”
With 20 wins in the last two seasons, Gordon has 29 career victories in five seasons on the NASCAR circuit and an ambitious goal.
“I’d like to win at every track we race on,” he said. “Winning never gets old.”