If someone had come to Jeff Gordon 10 years ago and told him what his life and career would be like in 2011, he likely would have laughed them away.
He probably would have assumed that DuPont would still be the primary sponsor on his No. 24 Chevy. It's not. A decade ago he was dealing with a highly publicized divorce. There was certainly no way he could have foreseen his current settled-down married life with a child. Yet he has two children.
You have to figure that the '01 version of Jeff Gordon, in the process of winning his fourth championship, would have looked ahead to '11 and believed that he would have added at least a couple of more Cups to his mantel. Yet he is still unfulfilled in his Drive For Five.
But, as always, he enters the season as a title contender. And with three more victories he will move into third place on NASCAR's all-time wins list, trailing only Richard Petty and David Pearson.
On Monday afternoon I caught with up with the Wonder Boy-turned-Elder Statesman as he took a break from supporting his latest worthy cause, the Sounds of Pertussis, which urges parents to get vaccinated to head off the condition more commonly known as whooping cough. We talked about his new sponsor, new crew chief, new Daytona surface, a possible new points system and even his new parking space at Hendrick Motorsports.
Ryan McGee: Whooping cough, really?
Jeff Gordon: Really. I had no idea that it was even still around, but after [son] Leo was born last summer it was brought to the attention of me and [wife] Ingrid. More and more infants are contracting pertussis, but they aren't catching it from other kids. They're getting it from their parents. So we're trying to get the word out to parents of newborns to get their adult shots before this disease starts making a serious comeback. We can keep that from happening; we just need to get the word out.
RM: Helping people seems to be the theme of your life as you approach 40
JG: Thanks for bringing that up [laughs].
RM: Sorry. But you see where I'm going with this. Your new primary sponsor, Drive To End Hunger, raised a lot of eyebrows when it was announced. At the press conference you and the people from the organization promised to be very aggressive with the cause.
JG: I think people are going to be blown away. Just last week we were working on the first run of commercials that will run at the start of the season and it is some really powerful, emotional stuff. At this stage of my career and my life I really want to use the notoriety that I've been fortunate enough to have over the years and use that to really make an impact. That's why we started the Jeff Gordon Foundation. That's why I got so excited about the Drive To End Hunger deal when it was first brought to us last fall. It really came together quickly, and I think a big reason for that was the enthusiasm on both sides of the table.
RM: Who knew that the sponsorship change would end up being merely the tip of the iceberg for this offseason?
JG: I know, right? I figured if we were going to start changing stuff we might as well just change everything!
RM: Alan Gustafson is now your crew chief, moving over from Mark Martin's car. How does that transition work? Did you guys go off and have some sort of bonding experience?
JG: No, we didn't need to. It's really been very smooth. I've known Alan for a long time. He's such a smart guy. He's been at Hendrick Motorsports for a decade now, which I don't think a lot of fans realize. We've had a lot of conversations over the winter, and I've been to the race shop a lot to work with the team on things like seat fitting, seat positioning, dashboard adjustments, things like that. It's kind of misleading how everyone keeps referring to it as a crew chief change or a crew change. This is a driver change. These are all of the guys and cars and the shop from the 5 team last year. The only thing that's changing with this team is me and the number on the door.
RM: I know it's just a move across the parking lot from what used to the 24/48 shop to what is now the 24/5 shop, but maybe people don't realize that your business, JGR, was also housed in your old shop.
JG: Yeah, we moved everything next door. I've always pulled into the same parking spot ... so now I have to get used to a new parking space. My space now is Dale Jr.'s old spot, so hopefully he likes my spot that he's taking over.
RM: Speaking of Junior, a lot of people are saying that the four-team shake-up at Hendrick is for no reason other than to the get the 88 up to speed. Fair?
JG: No, this was done to help all of us, not just Dale. I think that we all needed a little bit of a change of scenery and change of processes to try and get a new fire lit. That goes for the drivers, the teams and the crew chiefs. At least three of the four of us, anyway [laughs]. Anyone who pays even the smallest bit of attention to racing knows that Rick [Hendrick] doesn't do things just to do them. He's always thinking big-picture. This is no different. And I think you can already feel a lot of excitement in the race shops.
RM: OK, let me be the first to ask. Ray Evernham is back on the payroll at Hendrick, though he's with the automotive group, not the race teams. So how long before he's your crew chief?
JG: [Laughs] I think Ray's got enough going on. It's great to have him back with Hendrick, no matter what he's doing.
RM: This week you'll be taking your new car, new sponsor and new team onto a new racing surface at Daytona for testing
JG: Yeah, that job they did down there is unbelievable. We participated in the tire test in December and it was great. You figure the surface has only gotten better, more broken in, since then. I think the racing is going to be great for Speedweeks. Maybe a little crazy.
RM: Keeping with our theme of change, there seems to be a pretty large change coming in the points system. There are a lot of reports out there about what that new system might look like. Do you get caught up in all that speculation and does a system change alter your approach to the season?
JG: I have heard what everyone else has heard. NASCAR has asked us for input, and I've given them mine. But honestly I have no control over it. And nothing they do is going to change how I drive my race car. So I'll let Alan and the team come up with a plan of attack depending on what the new system is and we'll sit down at the start of the year and see if we're on the same page.
RM: You sound like a man who is ready to get on with his 19th season
JG: There you go again. You're really trying to make me feel old, aren't you?
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.