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Gordon thinks he has shot a capturing lost Sprint Cup glory

Driver Jeff Gordon walks out of his garage after practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Driver Jeff Gordon walks out of his garage after practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

CHARLOTTE – Times have changed for Jeff Gordon, and nobody knows it better than the driver himself. Gordon remembers a time more than a decade ago, back when he was the best driver in NASCAR. His talent was superior, his future was bright and trips to victory lane were the routine.

“By about the ninth or 10th win in 1998, we just went to the racetrack expecting to be there,” Gordon said.

It’s 15 years later, and Gordon’s no longer in that position. He’s not 26 anymore. He’s 41, and Hendrick Motorsports’s de facto elder statesman. But while contention for a Sprint Cup championship isn’t the formality it once was, Gordon thinks a few more kicks at another title remain.

“I certainly hope so,” Gordon said during this week’s NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. “We had very fast race cars last year. We did climb and claw our way into the Chase. It wasn’t pretty, but we did it. I think that that really gave us a lot of strength as a team to build on.”

Gordon’s Cup career extends back to 1993, and its success can be rivaled only by that of teammate Jimmie Johnson. He’s a four-time champion, winning crowns in 1995, ’97, ’98 and 2001, and his aforementioned ’98 campaign included a modern era record 13 wins. The feelings of invincibility from that year are gone, and wins don’t mean what they did then.

Instead, they mean more.

“I appreciate those moments more now than I ever have,” Gordon said. “That’s why I think (the season-ending win at) Homestead was so special to me. … We had to work hard, strategy, fast race car. We had to get ourselves into that position.”

Gordon’s perspective embodies the typical mindset of the seasoned athlete. He’s aware of the time he’s spent in the sport, realizes the journey he’s traveled from talented prospect to experienced veteran, and knows of the younger generation of Cup drivers eager to repeat his accomplishments.

But a four-time champion’s competitive streak doesn’t fade easily. Ask Gordon about eventually leaving the track, and he bristles.

“I’m not ready to do that,” he said. “So it’s tough for me to envision it.”

New start

With the new Gen-6 car making its debut, every Sprint Cup driver is facing a new element this season.

But there’s dealing with the new, and then there’s going through what Joey Logano is facing.

For Logano, very little is the same. He’s driving the new car for a new team, after moving from Joe Gibbs Racing to Penske. He’s got a new sponsor, a new crew chief and new teammates.

As Logano said, he’s had a little more work to do to get ready for the year than others.

“I’ve been super busy,” he said. “I was busy before the season even ended, with picking who we’re going to have on our team and who’s going to lead us. … It makes you feel like you belong here, to be able to be involved in stuff like that.”

The move to Penske pairs Logano with defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski, and serves as a chance for the hyped 22-year-old, who hasn’t made a Chase in four full-time seasons, to deliver on his potential.

“For him to see something in you,” Logano said, “it definitely is a heck of a compliment to have Roger Penske excited about yourself.”

Teeing off the season

Jamie McMurray knows the value of a good start. He began the 2010 season in perfect fashion by winning the Daytona 500, and to describe the importance of putting together a good effort in the year’s first race, McMurray chose another sport for a comparison.

“Our sport reminds me a lot of golf,” he said. “If you go and birdie the first hole, it makes your whole game better. If you go and hit a triple bogey on the first hole, it’s a big hole you’ve dug.

“It’s no different (in racing). When I won the Daytona 500, you don’t have to run that great the next five weeks to still be top 10 in points. If you go and you get in a crash at lap 10 in the Daytona 500, it takes forever to dig yourself out of that.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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