Jeff Gordon is a captivating person, insightful and honest and very normal. He has the rare quality of meshing with most any crowd and making each individual feel comfortable.
Many of you hate him because he's won so much. He's OK with that. Many love him for the same reason. It amazes me that a racer with 82 wins and four championships has to answer for his lack of production. Then again, I was among those asking.
I couldn't help but wonder last year whether he'd had enough with the circus and would soon retire to that beautiful wife and family in that high-rise condo. That was naive. But it's human nature. As fans we become accustomed to seeing someone at the pinnacle, and when he's no longer there, our perceptions change. Just the way it is.
Just five men have more NASCAR victories than Gordon. Ever. Only three have as many Cups.
He's Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in a single season and had three championships by the time he was 27 years old.
But he hasn't done much in recent years, and in competition, regardless of the genre, the general sentiment is always "show me, don't tell me." At times he wasn't overly competitive on the racetrack, and he became a father off it. His back hurt. Badly.
The whispers started, softly at first. Then got louder. Folks wondered whether he'd lost the edge. And to make it worse, his protégé just so happened to be kicking his tail in the same equipment.
But this year is different. This year, from the outset, there was an air of change, a noticeable edge to Gordon. He was less tolerant of other people's mess and was more visible in the media. (Hard to believe, but true.) He appeared on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and did Special Forces training with the Texas National Guard and invited reporters into his Manhattan home.
And he feuded publicly with teammate Jimmie Johnson and didn't back down.
It all intrigued me (and my bosses) greatly. So we set out to get some answers. We'd done some similar interviews before, with Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Gordon agreed to talk to me at Daytona. He arrived early.
We chatted for 30 minutes, and I'd gotten through only about 30 percent of my questions. He was bringing it, but time was short. He had another appointment to attend. He stayed a bit longer. He was again told it was time to go. He said "one more question." He stayed 15 minutes past the allotted time. Not all of the interview made it on broadcast television. The rest, though, is now available on ESPN.com.
I asked whether fatherhood had made him soft and whether he'd lost competitive drive. I asked whether the Johnson-Gordon rivalry was truly healthy when they're purposefully beating doors at 150 mph. And I wondered how long he'll hang around before he retires.
He addressed it all. Candidly.
He told me that he has something to prove and that the No. 24 team had lost its former swagger, but that his competitive spirit never waned. He discussed the rivalry with Johnson and how badly he initially wanted the No. 48 team to excel. When he and Rick Hendrick founded that team, Gordon was fresh off his fourth championship and dominating the sport. That decision, though, ultimately altered his place in NASCAR history. Had Johnson not been picked for the 48, there's no telling what Gordon's résumé might look like.
He mentioned purposefully not making friends with other competitors throughout his career. Why get close to someone you want to stomp on? But he and Johnson became inseparable for a time.
And he mentioned how fatherhood has only made him hungrier.
I learned a lot that day, got a new perspective on Gordon. Hopefully you guys will, too.