HAMPTON, Ga. - Slogans like "The Drive for Five" are on the back burner for Jeff Gordon. For now, he and his team are just focused on the next race.
The four-time NASCAR champion is off to one of the best starts of his career, with three straight top 10 finishes.
The only other time Gordon finished in the top 10 in the first three events of the season was 1997. An engine failure at Atlanta Motor Speedway ended that streak, but Gordon went on to win the second of his championships.
"Our team is very solid," Gordon said as his crew prepared his No. 24 Chevrolet for today's Kobalt 500 on Atlanta's 1.5-mile oval. "I feel like we've made a lot of ground from a year ago.
"We knew last year was going to be a tough building year for us, and now we're starting to really see the benefits of that building year."
In one of the lowest moments of his illustrious career, Gordon failed to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship in 2005. He said that was a wake-up call.
"We knew at that point that we had to reassess everything we were doing, everything we were using, the whole team," he said.
Steve Letarte, a long-time employee at Hendrick Motorsports, took over as crew chief for Gordon in the last 10 races of 2005 and the chemistry was instant. Gordon's team built momentum with four top 10s, including a win at Martinsville, in the last five races that season.
Last year, Gordon won two races, made the Chase and finished sixth in the points. Meanwhile, teammate Jimmie Johnson, whose car Gordon co-owns with Rick Hendrick, won the Cup title.
"If Jimmie or any team at Hendrick Motorsports does well like they did last year it only motivates the rest of us, and I think that we knew it was going to take time," Gordon said. "These first three races have gone extremely well.
"I still don't know if we've seen the full potential, but the car's driving good, I'm having fun, I'm more confident, the team's more confident. I feel like Steve has done a really great job as a leader and taking on that leadership role. So that takes time."
While Gordon heads into today's race second, trailing Mark Martin by six points, most everyone considers him the series leader, since Martin insists he will sit out the next two races at Bristol and Martinsville.
Gordon, who will become a father for the first time this year, said he is happy for Martin, who is cutting back to a partial schedule to have more time for family and fun. "He's made that decision with his family," Gordon said of Martin. "They've been committed to him all these years, following his dreams, and I think that he's at the age (48) and maturity level where he's recognized how important his family is and I respect that."
He wants to spend more time with them and not be caught up in racing. "This series is so competitive that no matter how good you do and you don't win the race, you can be miserable the whole week until the next race. Your family puts up with a lot, and I respect that he's made that commitment and promise to them. I think it's something he'll live up to." Since moving over the winter from his longtime home at Roush Racing to Ginn Racing, Martin has spoken often of the opportunity that new team owner Bobby Ginn is giving him to drive whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He can mentor young drivers and spend qualify time with his family. There has been considerable speculation that Martin, a four-time series runner-up but never a champion, might choose to stay in his new No. 01 Chevrolet as long as he keeps running at the front of the pack. But Martin, who will make his 621st consecutive start today, is adamant that he will be nowhere near Bristol next weekend, even if he comes out of this race still in the points lead. "It's a lot easier to do when I know I'm driving that 01 car and I have the support of everyone and I know that I don't have to walk away from the sport that I love, the people that I love, the fans," Martin said. "I love what I do and I'm not walking away from it. I'm just taking a break." On the other hand, the 35-year-old Gordon is in the prime of his career and has different goals. "We know that this year is really a championship for us or not a successful year," he said. NOTES: Ryan Newman will start from the rear of the 43-car field today after the Penske Racing team was forced to change the engine in the No. 12 Dodge.
"We made nine laps this morning (in practice)," said Newman, who won the pole Friday. "It was tightening up coming off (turn) four and we had a pretty good amount of oil in one of the spark plugs. Something was wrong."
Still, Newman wasn't too discouraged.
"This is the best racetrack if you have to go to the rear," he said. "Obviously, we don't want to do it, but we've got a great car. I'm not going to complain at all about luck or a break. This stuff happens once in a while."
His lap of 193.124 mph ended a drought of 21 races without a pole for Newman.
Elliott Sadler, who is 10th in the points, will start the race from the No. 1 spot.