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Gordon tries to drive around one of life's big distractions

The champion's slump has coincided with his divorce. Bill Elliott says he has to be affected.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2002

The champion's slump has coincided with his divorce. Bill Elliott says he has to be affected.

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- After weeks of introspection triggered by his high-profile divorce, four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon has come to a startling realization.

He is human.

And that's okay.

"People say, "Oh, he's Mr. Perfect,' or "He thinks he's Mr. Perfect,' " said Gordon, whose golden-boy image was enhanced by his storybook marriage to former model Jennifer Brooke Sealey.

"There may have been times along the way I did try to live up to that and put too much pressure on myself. I'm still trying to hold to a certain standard, but I'm not putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect because I know it's not possible."

Except, maybe, in his racecar.

Gordon, 30, contends there is no correlation between a 16-race winless streak, the longest since his first win in 1994, and the hardship in his personal life. Though many doubt him, Gordon insists that when he climbs into the No. 24 Chevrolet, as he will today for the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, he fires on all cylinders.

"I've had lots of distractions for many years and I've still been able to get in that racecar and do my job, and I feel I do a good job at it," Gordon said. "This one may be at a different level, but still, a distraction.

"It's no different than when my success started to grow and my popularity started to grow. I was dealing with a lot of things back then, business and decisions and things with my parents. It hasn't stopped me in the past, I don't see it stopping me in the future."

Gordon met his future wife when he accepted a trophy from her in 1993 at Daytona. The couple dated secretly for a year -- as Miss Winston, Brooke was prohibited from dating drivers -- and married in 1994, one year before Gordon's first championship.

In 1997, the couple moved to Florida from Charlotte, N.C., the epicenter of NASCAR, to escape the throng of fans. It might have been a mistake. Though neither party will hint at why the marriage failed, Gordon indicated in a recent interview with the Associated Press the move might have been the beginning of the end.

"Moving to Florida, it was me and Brooke, we had no friends, no family," Gordon told AP. "We moved away from our relationships and maybe we were a little guarded, we didn't open ourselves up to any new friends."

Brooke filed divorce papers March15 in Palm Beach County claiming "marital misconduct." She seeks alimony, their $9-million oceanfront mansion in Highland Beach, two luxury cars and part use of their boats and airplane. Gordon countersued, claiming his life-threatening occupation entitles him to more than half the couple's assets.

The couple has no children.

Gordon, with four titles and 58 victories, is NASCAR's all-time money winner at more than $47-million. That figure does not include multi-million dollar endorsement contracts for everything from milk to soda to sunglasses.

Viewed for years as being perfect -- the couple was mockingly referred to as Ken and Barbie by some in the Winston Cup garage -- Gordon defends his ability to compartmentalize pain. But he understands why people jump to conclusions.

"When we go out and win Winston Cup championships and win races, all we do is put ourselves in the position that when things aren't going great, people are going to over-analyze it," Gordon said. "But all we can do is stay focused in on our jobs and what we're capable of.

"If I wasn't sitting on the pole and leading laps, heck, I'd be over there apologizing to (my team): "Guys, I'm not focused; I'm not in it.' But that's not the case."

Gordon's start would be considered dandy for most drivers: Eighth in points, 201 behind leader Sterling Marlin, two poles, four top 10s, one top five, 345 laps led. Crew chief Robbie Loomis is certain the car's power steering failure last week at Martinsville had nothing to do with Gordon's divorce.

"I'm sure he hurts just like anyone else when he's going through a tough personal time," said Loomis, in his third season with Gordon. "But Jeff is the most determined, most focused racecar driver I've ever been around. Last week, when the power steering went out, he ran 260 laps. If he wasn't focused, he would have parked that car in a heartbeat."

Bill Elliott, who went through a divorce in 1990, said Gordon might think his focus is unaffected, but there is no way to block out such a life-altering event.

"He can say it doesn't bother him, but I guarantee you, at the end of the day, it will," Elliott said. "Different people can weather different things and sometimes racing can help take your mind off that stuff. But it will get harder. Reality sets in."

The war of words between lawyers has painted a hostile picture, but the two met Tuesday in Palm Beach County for court-ordered mediation and settled some temporary issues such as who will use the house and cars.

"I love Brooke to death, I always will. She's been my best friend for eight years," Gordon told AP. "I don't like what we're going through, but I want it to come out with us being friends in the end."

Gordon appears to be coming out of his shell, renewing friendships he neglected and forging new ones in the garage. He is less reclusive, less aloof.

Less plastic.

"I think about image a lot," Gordon said. "One of the things I'm recognizing more recently is that I'm also human, and there's nothing wrong with that. In some ways, I've earned a little bit more respect because people have recognized that I am human."

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