He says he wants to talk to the kids, but they will need to come to him if they want advice. That's how it worked for him when he first showed up. He remembers qualifying third for the 1994 Brickyard race, but nearly wrecking in the process. The next day he read Richard Petty's comments that it would have been foolish to destroy a race car trying to find extra qualifying speed when someone was already clearly the fastest car on the track. A racer should save that stuff for the actual race.
"Richard was sending me a message because he wanted me to be better. From then on, if I needed advice, I knew to go ask for it. I have my thoughts on the young guys and I want to help them get better like I still want to get better."
He is getting better. Take restarts. NASCAR's loop data reveals that one year ago, Gordon ranked 15th among all drivers when it came to speed on restarts, measuring top speed reached over the first two green flag laps. This year he's sixth. (Loop data also backs up his claims of being best on long runs. He ranks a solid first.)
"I think I've always been good on restarts. No one is getting through the gearbox better or not spinning his tires better than I am. That hasn't changed. But now I've backed up my approach. I start that process back in Turns 3 and 4. It's not just hitting the start-finish line and Turns 1 and 2."
And where the process was once almost solely horsepower-based during the first stanza of his career, Gordon now factors in aerodynamics as much as throttle. "I'm constantly searching for clean air. Moving a little to the right or a little to the left to get the nose of the car into clean air. Add all of that up and now you're going."
To someone who has watched Gordon throughout his 21-year Cup career, watching him alter his approach is both beautiful and painful. It's the legendary athlete reshaping his game, gently fighting off the calendar and his own body by working with them. It's the racing equivalent to Michael Jordan developing a fadeaway jumper to replace the skywalking dunk or Peyton Manning opting for a safety valve pass-and-catch just up ahead instead simply dynamiting his way downfield with his arm.
Jordan talked of watching film to find flaws on the floor to exploit. Gordon sits down with Dartfish, the same video program used by football coaches to break down film, to watch how rivals attack qualifying laps and the dance of restrictor-plate racing. Manning, already a film junkie, has become increasingly immersed in data, fraction-of-a-second timing of routes and the tiniest measurements of arm mechanics. Gordon pores over data recorded by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, which for a decade has all been dumped into a sharing system for any and all to investigate. It's a far cry from the team he walked into in 1993, when multicar teams were still a new experiment.
"When we were running against our teammate for the championship in 1996 [he lost to Terry Labonte], we shared nothing. They had their deal and we had ours. Now it's all on the table. That's why we brought in Jimmie Johnson, to start sharing and make everyone better. Unfortunately, we didn't keep up. But now they've helped us -- and me -- get better. It's a new world from the way it used to be."