Gordon has no regrets after finishing second in title chase

Published 6:00 am Friday, November 30, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) – Minutes into NASCAR’s annual industry luncheon,the driver known as ”Four Time” spotted teammate Jimmie Johnsonat the next table.

”What’s up champ?” Jeff Gordon whispered, reaching across toshake Johnson’s hand. ”Two-Time now. Two-time.”

Despite losing the fight for the Nextel Cup title, Gordon isvery much enjoying Johnson’s second consecutive championship. TheHendrick Motorsports drivers waged a fierce competition all season,but Johnson used an unbelievable late push to handily defend histitle while denying Gordon a fifth one.

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But Gordon showed no signs of bitterness Thursday when the 12title contending drivers gathered at Cipriani’s to pick up theirend of the season awards.

”Jimmie and I finished 1-2 and that was obviously a tremendousyear for Hendrick Motorsports,” he said. ”It’s certainly notsomething that I am going to hang my head about. I had a greatyear.”

A record-setting year, actually.

Gordon notched a record 30 top-10 finishes in the 36 pointsraces, while winning six times and building a lead of more than 300points during the ”regular season.” And if NASCAR still had thesame scoring system it used during Gordon’s first four titles, hewould have locked down the championship with two weeks to go in theseason.

But under the new Chase for the championship format, the fieldwas reset for the final 10 races and 12 eligible drivers battledfor the title. Gordon jumped out to an early lead with two Chasevictories and a stellar 5.1 average finish.

Johnson was just a notch better, though, and reeled off fourstraight wins to grab the title away. His average finish was 5.0.It was a run reminiscent of Gordon’s early days, when he dominatedthe series and won everything in sight.

And in becoming the first driver since Gordon to win consecutivetitles and notch double-digit wins (10) in a season, Johnson istugging at Gordon’s hold on the role of the best active driver.

The two headed into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway withJohnson needing a collapse to lose the title.

”The only way we were going to win it in Homestead was forJimmie and those guys to have problems, and there’s nothing worsethan going into a race and know that unless they have trouble – andyou don’t want to wish that on anybody,” he said. ”I want to winthat championship by beating those guys, and the truth of thematter is they beat us when it counted.”

Gordon said the days after the penultimate race at Phoenix, whenhe realized Johnson would win the title, were the toughest of theseason for him. But when the disappointment subsided, he was ableto view every one of Johnson’s feats as accomplishments thatstrengthen Hendrick Motorsports.

Instead of ruing the day he lobbied team owner Rick Hendrick tohire Johnson, Gordon is focusing on the overall operation atHendrick, which won 18 races this year between its four drivers.Casey Mears and Kyle Busch each won once.

”This year was by far the best year I’ve seen all four Hendrickcars performing together, working together and communicating theway they did,” Gordon said. ”It was the best, and the resultsshowed it and it speaks volumes of what kind of organization wehave.”

Hendrick certainly cashed in Thursday, when Johnson and Gordonclaimed most of the major awards. Each one came with a hefty payday- Gordon’s four awards totaled almost $400,000 – and the twodrivers dutifully handed over their envelopes to Hendrick duringthe ceremony. The car owner showed no reaction as he quietly placedthe thick stack in his suit pocket.

The car owner is looking to continue the success next season.The team will have a different look as Dale Earnhardt Jr. replacesBusch in the organization, but there’s been no indication the teamwill have any dropoff.

Gordon either. A leading trade magazine told Gordon on Thursdayit has rated him the No. 1 driver going into next season, an honorGordon doesn’t think he’s earned.

”I wouldn’t consider myself the favorite,” he said. ”I don’tsee how … looking at how this season ended up, going into nextseason, I don’t see how you can not pick Jimmie. If I was going todo a ranking, we’d be head-to-head, it would be very, very tight,very close.

”But if I was picking it, I would certainly pick Jimmie.”