Jeff Gordon has come of age. While most drivers and crew chiefs have ducked reporters in the wake of NASCAR's ongoing Dale Earnhardt seat-belt controversy, Gordon has occupied center stage. He's firing off concise and complete answers to whatever questions have been posed, and no subject is off-limits.
Gordon describes the seat-belt situation as "confusing and conflicting."While he is confident that emergency medical technician Tommy Propst believes he is telling the truth (that the seat belt was intact when he arrived at the accident scene), Gordon also feels that NASCAR and Richard Childress Racing are divulging accurate information as well. And he still supports Bill Simpson, the seat belt's manufacturer.
"Knowing everything I know, I still have Bill's seat belts in my car because I'm comfortable in them," says Gordon, a three-time Winston Cup champion. "We all need to make sure that everything is properly installed, and when we are tightening the belts, we need to tighten them up straight. Unfortunately, Bill has had some negative things come out because of this, and it's none of his doing."
Gordon has done his homework as both a driver and team owner, and he admits he knows more about seat belts than he ever did in the past.
He feels comfortable going to NASCAR and voicing his opinion. He knows that an open line of communication is best for everyone, and it's what is necessary if the sport is going to move on.
"We all have our own opinions, but what's going to be interesting is having a dedicated group of people that are testing everything and can either confirm what we know or teach us what we don't know," Gordon says. "Bringing the competitors together and having discussions gives us the ability to move forward."
At 29, Gordon is his own man. Even with NASCAR lurking in the red trailer across the garage, he is standing and delivering. Although no one can replace Earnhardt, Gordon has a natural talent with sponsors and journalists that goes beyond his skills on the track.
"Jeff has always been mature far beyond his years," team owner Rick Hendrick says. "But since Ray (Evernham, former crew chief) left and we formed our partnership, he's taken a much more active role in running the team from both a business and competitive standpoint. ...
"Something many people don't realize about Jeff and (wife) Brooke is that they are extremely intelligent people with great business sense.
"Last year was a year of rebuilding for the DuPont team, and Jeff carried that team on his shoulders with no complaints and under a lot of criticism that all the success was due to working with Ray. ... I think Jeff is the kind of person who would have been enormously successful no matter what profession he chose."
On the competitive side of racing, no other current driver has three Winston Cup trophies. He is 14 points behind leader Dale Jarrett in the standings this season and is neck and neck with Rusty Wallace for total career wins, with Wallace leading by one with 54.
Gordon admits that a lot has changed since he won his last title in 1998 -- new car, new crew and a new crew chief. But he says his team is "tight-knit" and that its members support one another.
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