"Dale Earnhardt was in his prime when I started thinking about driving," Gordon says. "To me, Dale Earnhardt was a bigger name at the time than Richard Petty was because he was the guy winning championships at that time. To come and race against him was something.

"I don't think I ever appreciated him by just hearing about him or watching him on TV. It was when I got to race against him and see just how good I was."

Gordon says the one thing he missed most about winning his fourth Winston Cup title was having Earnhardt come up to him and give him one of his famous pinches or headlocks that the NASCAR legend often gave his friends and competitors as a sign of affection.

"You get caught up in what goes on here every weekend and you don't necessarily get a chance to think and reflect on that," he says. "The times I had with Dale and the great races we had, I miss that.

"Nobody is ever going to be able to replace that."

Four More?When Gordon clinched his fourth Winston Cup title in a career that began just nine years ago, the 30-year-old driver could have been excused if he had a message for all of his detractors.

In 2000, when Gordon was struggling to a ninth-place finish in the series and was no longer the driver to beat in nearly every race, the anti-Gordon crowd crowed that without Evernham as his crew chief, Gordon's glory days were over.

Washed up at 29.

Nothing could have been more absurd. It was just a matter of time before Gordon regained his championship luster.

Gordon says, "You have to love the critics. They are writing what is on their minds and they can inspire you in a lot of ways. They certainly inspired me and this team."

Gordon's Winston Cup titles in 1995, 1997 and 1998 came with Evernham in charge of the team at Hendrick Motorsports. Together, they formed one of the best crew chief/driver combinations in NASCAR history.

Gordon's fourth title was with Loomis as the crew chief.

"This championship is a lot different than the first three," Gordon says. "The year is so special because of the last two years. We had to rebuild and we had to come together, basically, as a new team. We had to climb the mountain again.

"Because of all the adversity we have had to overcome the last couple of years, It has made this year even sweeter."

By scoring his fourth Winston Cup title by the age of 30, Gordon is halfway home to breaking the record of seven titles shared by Petty and Earnhardt.

Are four more titles a realistic goal? Gordon has been too busy enjoying his latest title to give it much thought.

"This is blowing me away," he says. "It hasn't sunk in yet. We want to get it done first, then I can start reflecting on the year and what has gone on in my career. I'm just pretty proud to have four.

"It's been an amazing ride."

Tops At 30A comparison of what Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon accomplishedas of their 30th birthday

Driver Starts Championships Poles Wins Top 5s Top 10s
Richard Petty 358 1 57 60 189 238
Dale Earnhardt 76 1 4 6 34 48
Jeff Gordon 277 3 38 55 141 179

Gordon turned 30 just prior to the 2001 Brickyard 400 at Indy.
Petty won his fourth Winston Cup championship at the age of 35. Earnhardt won his fourth championship at the age of 39.