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Calm in the fast lane Jeff Gordon: Only 24, the Winston Cup champion returns eager and focused to show last season was for real.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Inside the elegant mobile home parked in the drivers' parking lot at Daytona International Speedway, Jeff Gordon sits in front of an electronic chess board, a gift from his wife, Brooke. Behind him, beautiful crystal and cut glass trophies line the shelves of a glass curio cabinet, an indication of his success.

This slim driver who looks barely old enough to grow whiskers is the Winston Cup champion, and he is tanned and relaxed as he contemplates life at the top.

This week, in between qualifying and preparing for tomorrow's Daytona 500, he and Brooke flew to New York on their private plane to attend the ESPY Awards. He won the Driver of the Year Award, beating out the more glamorous Formula One champion Michael Schumacher and Indy-car champion Jacques Villeneuve.

And, yet, as he sits here, he insists there aren't a lot of differences in his life since winning the championship and arriving here for the first race of the new season.

"I think the people expect a little more out of us than they did last year," said Gordon, 24, who will start eighth tomorrow. "With all the poles and wins we had, if we're not on the pole or winning, people might think we're not championship caliber. But I think we're right on track.

"The biggest difference I've noticed about being champion is that I can get around the Speedway a little easier. I've got my own parking place by the [infield] hospital if I want it. And I can get in the track, through the guards, even if I've forgotten my credential, because they recognize me and that's a good feeling."

There have been lots of good feelings. Last season, his third, he led the series with seven wins, eight poles, 2,610 laps led and $4,347,343 money won.

All of it done for car owner Rick Hendrick, who had waited 11 years for his first championship.

"For me to be the Winston Cup champion is more than I even know how to comprehend," Gordon said. "Even now, I look at it and think how many of my fantasies and dreams have been realized. I don't think I'm taking it for granted. . . . We're not " going to really prove ourselves until we go out there and win another one and show people it was not a fluke."

Gordon's exuberance has been noticed by a lot of low-key drivers, but what is also noticed is his super cool during the races.

"He's like Superman going into the phone booth," said Hendrick. "He goes in a kid and comes out a professional."

Said past Winston Cup champion Rusty Wallace: "I think he's a natural-born talent. Some people are born to be drivers and some aren't."

Gordon said he is most at home, most calm, when he's on the race track.

"It's my whole life, going out there and being hungry and winning," he said. "When I get in the race car, that winning instinct comes out. Just the will and the desire to finish first is something that comes natural. You can't control that."

And certainly he doesn't want to.

"When you lose, it's so frustrating," Gordon said. "It's like you're torn up inside and you're so upset with yourself and that's what makes you fight, fight, fight."

At the end of the 1994 season, in which he finished eighth in the Winston Cup point standings, Gordon got married, which he considers to have been a major ingredient in last season's success.

"Brooke's like my best friend. . . . I know I couldn't be out there and be down to earth about how quickly things are happening in my life without her," he said. "And it's a wonderful feeling not to have to worry about going out on dates. I don't feel like I'd be focused on racing as much. I'd be much more into the party mode and going out and staying out late at night."

Instead, he concentrates on his race car, and learning more about mechanics.

"I watch [Dale] Earnhardt and I see him do some great things out there that people look up to. I know how much he helps his team by knowing how each part of the car works and how each part of the car affects what the car does. If he starts the race with a car that's not the best, he can make it a good race car by the end of the race because he's able to help his team to know what's wrong."

lTC Gordon said he's not lacking anything as a driver, but, "I want to learn the car inside and out so I can communicate better with my team. There are some disciplined little things that I can do better."

NOTES: With five laps to go, Dale Earnhardt picked up the pace in his Pontiac Firebird and roared into the lead to win his 28th career victory at Daytona in yesterday's International Race of Champion. Earnhardt won his third IROC race here, and the fourth in the past five years. Earnhardt averaged 187.793 mph and beat Robby Gordon, one of three Indy-car drivers in the field, to the finish by two car lengths. Road racer Tom Kendall was third. . . . Lyndon Amick, driving the Amick Farms Pontiac, won the Goody's Dash series 18th annual Daytona USA 200. Amick, at 18 the youngest driver to win the race, averaged 114.087 mph for a .25 second victory over Will Hobgood. Pole sitter Mike Swaim Jr. finished third. Maryland driver Steve Barnes started 39th and finished 17th in his American Car Care Centers Chevy. Fellow Maryland driver Donnie Neuenberg started 17th and finished 19th in his Stoner Transport Group Ford.

Daytona 500

When: Tomorrow, noon

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WXCY (103.7 FM)

Pole sitter: Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 189.510 mph.

Defending champion: Sterling Marlin

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