Jeff Gordon's career path indelibly stamps him as an extreme thrill seeker. But the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season, one in which he had high hopes of repeating as champion, turned out to be a roller coaster ride that would have left even the hardiest soul weak-kneed.

Up-and-down performance on the track, coupled with his wife, Brooke, filing for divorce, tested Gordon's mettle in ways he never imagined. At the low point of the campaign, crew chief Robbie Loomis had serious concerns about keeping his job at Hendrick Motorsports.

Despite the turmoil, Gordon had a legitimate chance to successfully defend his crown, and all three of his victories came in the final third of the season. That late surge and the potential of a redesigned Monte Carlo SS boosted the confidence of Gordon's team. The 31-year-old driver believes a fifth Winston Cup championship is there for the taking in 2003.

"I want to get my personal stuff behind me. That's not going to happen anytime soon, unfortunately; but now it's not affecting me as much as it was during part of 2002," Gordon says. "I'm kind of just living my life and getting focused to go out and do it (in 2003). Sometimes success is not as far out of your grasp as you think."

Dodging Distractions

Gordon can say that in hindsight, having rebounded from as low as 11th in the 2002 points to finish 4th. He went 31 races between wins--from September 30, 2001, until August 24, 2002--an agonizing drought that nearly left the team in tatters. Making matters worse were the constant questions about whether the distractions of divorce proceedings and co-ownership of the team headed by rookie driver Jimmie Johnson had left Gordon unable to focus on his own racing. The edge Gordon had in winning four championships from 1995-2001 seemed to have been lost.

Yet, according to Loomis, it was Gordon who played the primary role in getting the team back on track.

"Jeff was the one all year who calmed the waters," Loomis says. "When we weren't winning, everybody was freaking out. He said, 'Hey, we sat down in December after the banquet and we didn't talk about winning races: We talked about winning a second straight championship and helping Jimmie win Rookie of the Year.' He kept us looking at the goal of what we were working toward, and that kind of calmed us for a little bit."

The 2002 season started off decently enough for Gordon, with lead-lap finishes in the first four events and a pair of Top 10s.

But then, in March, Brooke Gordon, Jeff's wife of seven years, filed for divorce, citing "marital misconduct"--a Florida legal term that covers a multitude of alleged transgressions. The fact that Jeff and Brooke appeared to be the picture-perfect couple--young, dashing championship driver and ravishing former Miss Winston--only made the news of the break-up more intriguing. Gordon refuses to discuss the particulars of what led to the separation, but he's open about how his marriage upheaval affected him.

"I don't think it was as hard as dealing with the pressure of not winning," Gordon says. "When it keeps being brought up that you haven't won in 25 races, 30 races, that stuff starts to affect you. Each week that goes by without winning, it gets tougher and tougher and tougher.

"When a certain number of races went by, then they (the fans and media) started wondering, is it the personal issues? I can't really say that the personal side of things was preventing us from winning races. We were in position and had things break or had wrecks happen. I don't see how anyone could possibly say my personal life caused that. But the stuff going on in my personal life compounded what was happening on the track and made for a tougher first half of the year."

While the entanglements of divorce were a daily consideration, if not a distraction, for Gordon, when he got in the car, racing was his sole focus, Loomis says.

"I tell people all the time, whatever was in the car, he got all of it out of it," Loomis says. "When he got out of the car, he had to think about what was going on with the divorce stuff. But when he was in the car, he was 100 percent into it."

Racing provided Gordon with what he called "an amazing kind of therapy," and so did his parents, team owner Rick Hendrick, and others whose opinion he could trust.

"I never allowed the distractions to really affect me in my work with driving the race car," Gordon says. "I don't think people can really understand that unless you get behind the wheel of a car and drive as hard as we do.

"I always put my faith in God and allowed Him to guide me. I'm not somebody who dwells on problems and worries too much, but certainly I'm going to talk to people about certain issues: people I respect and trust."

Down To Business

At the same time, however, Loomis had to re-examine his relationship with Gordon in order to cure an on-track disease called "mediocrity." Through the end of May, Gordon had managed only three Top-5 finishes.

"For the first two years, we had strictly a business relationship, but then that evolved into a friendship as well," Loomis says. "And I was trying to be careful about that because I'm friends with both Jeff and Brooke. And then you see what happens with Bobby Labonte and (crew chief) Jimmy Makar, who are two of the best in the business. They were really good friends, but eventually I think that hurt their racing. It was kind of the same thing with Jeff and me, and by about the third or fourth month, we got back around to mostly a business relationship because that's what we, as a team, needed."

By that point, Gordon and Loomis were painfully aware that they had lost ground in a sport that never stands still. Human nature set in, and the fear of fixing what wasn't broken came back to haunt the team on race day. They didn't fall behind the rest of the pack because they were liberal in their thinking, but because they weren't getting radical enough, Gordon says. "We were using setups that worked well for us in 2001--setups that won six races and a championship. That's proof of how fast things develop and how you've got to be ready to expand and grow and move."

Loomis says history should have taught him to be unafraid of being bold. In his short tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, he had already experienced the pitfalls of conservatism in Gordon's chassis options.

When Loomis left Petty Enterprises after the 1999 season and signed on as Gordon's crew chief, he was understandably leery about being too pushy too soon. The result was relatively catastrophic, as Gordon finished ninth in points--his worst showing in the standings since his 1993 rookie season. During that off-season, Loomis and his short-term predecessor, Brian Whitesell, agreed to take a new approach to Gordon's setups for 2001. The change of battle plans resulted in twice as many victories (six) as Gordon scored in 2000, 18 Top-5 finishes, a championship, and nearly $11 million in earnings.

A Rookie Guide

In spite of the one-year turnaround, Gordon's team fell victim to human nature and got conservative again. Magnifying Gordon's on-track problems was the immediate success of Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus.

As a first-year pairing, they weren't shackled by tradition and didn't feel compelled to follow established Hendrick blueprints. Their ideas worked in ways that Gordon's and Loomis' didn't, and Johnson consistently outperformed his teammate/boss. Johnson scored his first Winston Cup victory on April 28 at California Speedway, and then won again on June 2 at Dover.

With the latter win, Johnson took over second in the point standings with Gordon one spot back. But Gordon still didn't seem to be hitting on all cylinders, and he and Loomis agreed to rely less on the past and more on the present, in effect casting their lot with Johnson and Knaus.

"They were going against the grain with setups, and they had so much success the first of the year," Loomis says. "We weren't winning, and we needed to open our minds to those kinds of different things that Jimmie and Chad were doing." Loomis admits that changing course was a way of saving his own skin.

"We're in the performance business, and I know that, like a head coach in the NFL or the NBA, we get paid to perform," Loomis says. "There was a time when I was very concerned over my future. I knew I'd have a job somewhere in Winston Cup racing, but I wasn't sure whether it would be with Hendrick Motorsports or Jeff Gordon. I felt like we had a good team, but having two cars in-house made things different across the board."

The breakthrough came as the circuit returned to its Southern roots for a late-summer run. Gordon ended his drought at Bristol, leading the most laps and then shoving Rusty Wallace out of the lead to capture the Sharpie 500. The win, also an end to the losing streak, was a huge relief to Gordon and Loomis. "Bristol brought me off the respirator," Loomis says. "I was breathing on my own again after that."

A week later, Gordon was back in Victory Lane, this time in the Southern 500 at Darlington, where he led all but three of the final 127 laps. It was Gordon's fifth victory in NASCAR's oldest superspeedway event, tying the mark held by Cale Yarborough. It also moved Gordon into second in the points, just 91 markers behind the leader, Sterling Marlin.

But just as quickly as the team found its groove, it lost it--big-time. Gordon's engine broke the following Saturday night at Richmond, and then he could only muster a 14th-place finish at New Hampshire. The next week, at Dover, Gordon ran poorly and then was swept up in a crash.

A win a week later at Kansas City was followed by yet another blown engine at Talladega, and that 42nd-place finish was the death knell to his title hopes. He finished 36th at Martinsville after being shoved into the backstretch, then rebounded to finish 6th, 5th, 3rd, and 5th to end the season and capture 4th in the points. The finale at Homestead saw him start from 37th--the first time in his career that he had used a provisional to make the field.

"Every season's different," Gordon says. "You never know what it's going to take or who's going to get on a roll. When we won Bristol and Darlington back to back, I think everybody thought, 'Shoot, here we go on a run to the championship.' Then we had a couple of the worst weeks we had all year long. "You never take anything for granted. You go all out, hope it's your year, and do the things you think that it takes to get on top. You've got to fight from the first race to the last race. There's not one point in the season that you race for points or do things where you let up.

"That's probably what's changed most about our sport in recent years. I mean, you not only have to fight hard every race, you fight hard every lap of every race. Six or seven years ago, you could save tires, save the car, cars would fall out and all you had to do was be there at end; and if you played smart, you'd be there at the end of race. Now you've got pit strategy involved in ways that it wasn't before, you've got cars that are stuck like glue the whole tire run because of the downforce the cars make, and the tires last forever. A lot has changed, and it's tough to keep up with all of it all of the time."

A Season Of Change

More changes were in store for 2003. Some in Gordon's pit crew have been replaced, and then there's the learning curve inherent in a redesigned Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS. Those kinds of regular shake-ups, Loomis says, help to keep a team excited about its short- and long-term tasks.

"The new car has better balance, downforce-wise, front to rear and with less drag, and that's what we've been up against with Dodge and Ford the past two years," Loomis says. "We're pretty excited to be able to come out with a package like that and compete on more equal terms."

Loomis believes the Chevy camp should whip the Monte Carlo into shape quickly thanks in part to the defection of Joe Gibbs Racing (the title team in 2000 and 2002) to the Chevy contingent.

"The new Chevrolet and the new (Pontiac) Grand Prix should help the GM teams a lot when it comes to racing in traffic," Loomis says. "For the last two years, if we were out front, we were extra strong, but if you got behind somebody, you couldn't get around them. I think the 2003 Monte Carlo and Grand Prix will definitely bring some parity between the manufacturers."

And as if those changes weren't enough to keep a team stoked, there's always Gordon's rock-solid confidence that he can do special things with a race car. "You go through times when you work just as hard at doing everything the same and it's just not happening," Gordon says. "You just start to question a lot of things. My confidence in my driving, I don't think that I ever really questioned that."

Neither did Loomis, who gives his driver all the credit for keeping the team from coming apart at the seams during the low points of 2002.

"We all know what a winner is and he's the one all along who kept us calm," Loomis says. "A lot of drivers have asked me what the difference is between Jeff Gordon and other drivers. I think that having won four championships, Jeff has confidence that runs way deep."

As Gordon continues to mature (remember, he's only 31, with four championships under his belt in only 10 seasons), he will continue to exhibit even more leadership, especially as a team co-owner.

"I'm at the shop more now because I'm a bigger part of the organization than I used to be," Gordon says. "I have more of a say in things now and a hand in what's going on, but to be honest with you, my role really hasn't changed all that much. I'm the driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, and other than having four Winston Cup championships and 61 wins, nothing's changed.

"That's all the role I want right now. I love being involved from the ownership side of things and I try to be as much of a teammate as I can to the other drivers here, but they know my involvement in getting Jimmie's team going. When I want to step away from driving, that's when my role around here will change significantly."

Gordon is many years from hanging up his helmet. He knows that his role as one of the sport's giants has opened many doors for him, including guest host stints on Live with Regis and Kelly and Saturday Night Live.

Even at his young age, Gordon is already seventh on the list of all-time Winston Cup race winners, and only 23 victories away from tying Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third place. David Pearson's second-best mark of 105 wins is a possibility, though probably a tougher mountain to climb than tying, or surpassing, the record of seven Winston Cup crowns shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

"The competition is stiffer now than ever before," team founder and owner Rick Hendrick says. "But if we can control the failures and finish every race, we can leave the rest of it up to Jeff Gordon."