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Gordon savors his off-track life

The four-time NASCAR champ wants to focus on his personal life a little more.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- The first invitation came a couple of years ago, but Jeff Gordon, a man who routinely makes life-and-death decisions at nearly 200 mph, flinched.

Host Saturday Night Live?

No way.

"I didn't have the guts to do it," Gordon said.

But a funny thing happened last month, when Gordon finally mustered the courage to go to New York. NASCAR's squeaky clean superstar got into character for a skit -- donning a mullet wig, long sideburns and a T-shirt reading "One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor!" and karate kicking for a live, national television audience -- and found himself.

"I would never have done that two or three years ago," said Gordon, who dressed up to portray a first-class loser helping shoot a television show in his cousin's basement.

"I'm enjoying life. I feel like I'm finally in position to take advantage of the opportunities I have been given and to enjoy them. Sometimes, I found myself sheltering myself or hiding from them."

As Gordon prepares for Sunday's Daytona 500 and the start of his 11th Winston Cup season, his goal is to strike a better balance between his career and personal life. He is no less dedicated to winning a fifth championship, just more content.

"He's been through the years of acquiring things," said Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief for the past three seasons. "You reach the point where you realize what's important in life. And you settle down and focus on that. I see an inner peace in him."

Gordon's single-minded pursuit of success made him NASCAR's youngest four-time champion at age 30. His 61 victories are the most among active drivers and seventh all-time. Now 31, he is his own peer group; too accomplished to be a young gun, too young to be a veteran.

But not too young to reflect.

After winning his fourth title in 2001 -- the year Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 and terrorists struck New York and Washington, D.C., -- Gordon, like many Americans, examined his true worth.

"Most guys when they get to their early 30s, they realize they're at halftime of their lives and they want to figure out where they're at," Loomis said. "He did a lot of evaluating."

Gordon found that his mantle and bank accounts were brimming but that his life could be fuller. Somewhere along his meteoric rise, he stopped admiring the stars, forgot how to have fun. All those laps in the No. 24 Chevrolet, and he was just going in circles.

"I've won four Winston Cup championships and won more money in this sport than anybody else out there," said Gordon, who is worth an estimated $58-million. "I've experienced more highs than most people in this sport, and I don't know if I really enjoyed it the way I could have or should have.

"What I'm realizing, too, is that life is not all about winning. It's not all about money. You've got to enjoy life and relax and not let all this little stuff get to you because life is just too short to worry about those things."

Gordon, as much of the world knows, is going through a tabloid-style divorce. He and his wife of seven years, Brooke Sealey, split more than a year ago, but lawyers continue to collect paperwork and haggle over terms.

Gordon admits, in retrospect, the distractions of his personal life probably affected his performance -- to a degree. Yes, he was winless in the first 23 races of 2002. But he still has "a hard time believing" his divorce played any part in the broken rear-end gear that knocked him out of the race while leading at Sonoma, Calif., on June 23.

Gordon said his divorce also is not a factor in his newfound desire to get the most out of life.

"It has nothing to do with whether I'm married or not or whether Brooke is in my life or not," he said. "It has to do with the fact that I found myself backing into a shell and realized that it just wasn't healthy. I just want to be myself a little more.

"I think when I was 22 or 23, I was trying to act like I was 45 or 50. I'm not saying that didn't help me get a long way in this sport. But now I'm 31, and I want to get back some of those years."

For the first time in a long time, Gordon spent a quiet Christmas at home with family: his mother, stepfather, sister, half-brother and their families. It was wonderful, he said, a holiday he'll never forget. And a perfect example of the simple pleasures life has to offer.

If he is open to it.

"All I want is to be able to say, "Wow, look what I've accomplished, and I've enjoyed every minute of it,"' Gordon said. "I'm able to do that much more today than I ever was before."

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