TALLADEGA, Ala. – Jeff Gordon is far from losing his fire.
With the big 4-0 staring him down in 2011, the four-time champ, who once predicted he'd be retired by then, appears more determined than ever.
The catalyst? His teammate/buddy Jimmie Johnson.
Maybe Gordon never believed that anyone -- even the driver he proposed as his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports -- could crash his championship party.
Factor in Gordon's inability to break this 38-race losing streak and the fashion in which Johnson has been racing him of late and it's understandable how the driver of the No. 48 has ignited his ire.
And it happened in the closing laps at Talladega on Sunday. Just when Gordon thought it was safe to race on the same surface with Johnson, the shenanigans started again.
Gordon called Johnson's latest actions "disappointing." More than that, the original four-time was admittedly "pissed."
"We were going to drive by some cars and the No. 48 decided to change three lanes and keep me from going by him," Gordon said. "And that's just not cool when you've got cars going that much faster than you. So maybe he just didn't know it ... I don't think it was a very smart move. These cars sometimes get such a shove and sometimes you get so much momentum it's just more of a coincidence that it was him.
"But you turn the wheel left like that when a car is coming and somebody's going to have a problem. I did everything I could to keep from wrecking him. I did. I saw what he was doing and I (knew) I couldn't go underneath the yellow line to pass him so I did everything I could to check up but somebody was still pushing me and turned me and I actually got into him. But he's been testing my patience and it's about reached its boiling point."
Due to qualifying being rained out, Johnson started on the pole. He led seven times for a total of nine laps. Gordon led for the first time on Lap 68 and found the point three additional times for a total of four laps led -- including Lap 158 with just 30 laps remaining.
But when it came down to what should have been the final six laps of the race, Gordon contends that since Johnson had the slower car, he needed to get the hell out of his way.
"I was coming 10 miles an hour faster than anybody and the 48 is testing my patience, I can tell you that," Gordon added. "It takes a lot to make me mad and I am pissed right now. You know when a car is going that much faster. ... I don't know what it is with me and him right now but whatever."
According to the Associated Press, Johnson later accepted blame for the incident.
"I misjudged the closing rate,'' Johnson told The Associated Press. ``We all make mistakes, I am no different.
"Certainly, that was my fault. I made the mistake there.''
Johnson added that he could understand there being frustration on Gordon's part, but didn't seem to feel there was any developing feud between the pair.
"There's no doubt after the fact that frustrations are high, the wreck just compounded it,'' Johnson told the AP. "I think he was speaking out of frustration.''
Frustration? This isn't the same Mr. Nice Guy that sat idly by at the pre-Homestead presser in 2007 defeated before the green flag fell on final race of the season as Johnson appeared poised for title number two. This is a champion that realizes his time is limited -- perhaps three more full seasons -- and wants to exact revenge not only for the actions of late but for the four titles that could have been his. Gordon needs to prove to his fans that he can indeed beat Johnson at his own game.
Gordon salvaged a 22nd-place finish on Sunday and is currently 10th in the point standings. Johnson wrecked after contact with Greg Biffle on Lap 195 and admits he "lost control" of his car. He was scored 31st and had his points lead cut by 82 points.
At Texas, Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, who once was Gordon's car chief and now competes against the No. 24 team despite sharing a building with the squad on the Hendrick Motorsports complex, said, "You want a couple of stallions out there. You don't want old mares."
It appears he got his wish. But will Knaus' tune change as the points diminish and tension rises in the 24/48 shop? Certainly, with NASCAR returning to short track competition this weekend at Richmond, tempers could certainly flare again.
As for Gordon's renewed drive, team owner Rick Hendrick says his veteran's attitude is nothing new.
"He's been that way all year," Hendrick said of Gordon. "He's not sick of Jimmie. He's just on the chip. He could of won three races already. He's just getting in his groove."
And for the ABJ (anybody but Johnson) fans, the time is now for Gordon to prove to his supporters and himself that he's just as good as he ever was and better than Jimmie Johnson.