By JENNA FRYER
The Associated Press
Saturday, November 17, 2007; 6:40 PM
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- When he won at Talladega to pass Dale Earnhardt on NASCAR's career victory list, it became clear this would be a special year for Jeff Gordon.
When he took the checkered flag at Darlington despite steam spewing from his engine, it looked as if nothing could possibly go wrong for him.
When the sky opened up at just the right moment at Pocono to ensure Gordon another victory, there seemed to be no doubt that Gordon was on course for a fifth Nextel Cup championship.
And when his precious daughter, Ella, was born in late June, the first-time father realized that 2007 would go down as the greatest year of his life.
He hasn't changed his mind about that, even as he heads into Sunday's season finale needing a miracle at Homestead-Miami Speedway to steal the title from teammate Jimmie Johnson.
"We don't want to hang our heads and feel disappointed because it's been a phenomenal year on and off the racetrack, and we'll see what happens on Sunday," Gordon said. "If this one slips away, we go for it next year."
But this one wasn't supposed to slip away, not after the year Gordon and his No. 24 team put together.
He was the most consistent driver all season long, tying a record with 29 top-10s and an average finish of 7.4. He won six races and stormed out to a lead of more than 300 points over second place during the "regular season" and 430-points over Johnson.
And if the Chase for the championship had never been invented, and NASCAR still raced under the same system used for Gordon's first four championships, he would have clinched the title two weeks ago.
Although the Chase erased all of his work, Gordon still turned it up a notch during this 10-race sprint to the finish by winning two races and averaging a near-flawless finishing mark of 5.2.
Problem is, Johnson was better.
His 14th place finishes at Dover and Charlotte were his only slips, his average finish has been 4.7 and he's reeled off four consecutive victories to build a cozy 86-point lead that has him poised to repeat as champion and grab this title away from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
No matter what Gordon does in Sunday's finale, Johnson, who starts from the pole, needs to finish only 18th or better to win his second consecutive title.
And Gordon is OK with that.
"To me, if Jimmie wins it, we've both won, because I've had something to me that means the world to me by becoming a dad," Gordon said. "And I know how badly he wants that second championship. So either way, I'm not going to be disappointed."
That's not to say that Gordon has lost the edge he carried into NASCAR when he stormed into the top series in 1993. He won everything in sight, racking up 81 career victories and a NASCAR record $89 million in winnings.
But his personal life was rarely on par with his professional life. He alienated friends and family during his first marriage, which ended in an expensive, public divorce. Then he had to search for both balance and happiness as he courted new wife, Ingrid.
At 36 years old, he wasted no time starting a family and the couple welcomed their first child just seven months after their wedding. They celebrated their one-year anniversary in Mexico last week, gleefully toting Ella around on their adventures.
The bliss of family life has put winning and losing into perspective for Gordon.
"When you go through becoming a first-time father, there is nothing that's going to top that. It is the ultimate," Gordon said. "I've won championships before, and as bad as I want to win this one, I know that even that can't top becoming a dad and that whole experience."
Car owner Rick Hendrick has seen Gordon experience everything in his career, beginning as a wide-eyed 20-year-old phenom to the mature champion he is today. It's been an incredibly successful ride for both of them, but one that only seems complete right now.
"He's as competitive as I've ever seen him. He wants it as bad as I've ever seen him want to win this championship this year," Hendrick said. "But I have never seen him as happy as a person as he is right now with Ella and Ingrid. And I've never seen him in Victory Lane as excited as he was in Talladega (in October), because Ella was there. It was her first time.
"He's happier in his life as a whole than I've ever seen him since I've known him."
Gordon conceded the title last week in Phoenix, when he finished a solid 10th but lost more ground to race-winner Johnson. And he knows Johnson will need some sort of mechanical failure, bad break or accident to relax his grip on the trophy.
But even worse, Gordon knows these kind of seasons are hard to come by. There might not be another shot at another championship, and he's not quite sure how long he'll continue chasing greatness.
"There is no doubt that I look, and one of the reasons why I think this championship was so important to me this year is because as you do get older, you look at your opportunities becoming slimmer and slimmer," Gordon said. "I feel like I've got more good years left in me. But I've got to admit, we've put together one heck of a year. It's going to be hard for us to top this type of year that we've had."