There will come a day - and that day may come soon - when Jeff Gordon will tire of saying all the right things.

For now, Gordon says he is elated with the progress he, crew chief Steve Letarte and the rest of the #24 Hendrick Motorsports team have made since last year. That euphoria will pale, however, unless Gordon can find a way to win a race, not simply post a top-five finish.

"It's encouraging," Gordon said of his runner-up finish in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "I'm a big believer that you got to walk before you can run. I think we've turned the corner. This team has really shown consistently in all four races this year that we're a team that can battle up front and for the win.

"I believe if we keep doing that, we're going to win races. I think that we haven't really reached our full potential yet, either. We're experimenting with something that the guys worked hard on over the off-season, the engineers, Steve, all the guys on this team. It's already been paying off. We're just really early into it. I think we can only make it better.

"Of course, I want to win. We've been close. But I'm not going to say we feel like we're frustrated. We're pretty happy the way we're running."

There's no denying that Gordon and his team have started 2009 on a better note than they finished 2008. Gordon qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last year, but he was winless for the first time since 1993, his first full season of Cup racing. When it came to the championship, he was an afterthought.

Four races into the current season, his average finish is 5.8, and he leads the points standings by 43 points over second-place Clint Bowyer. There's only one problem. Despite his early-season strength, Gordon has raced 45 straight times without a win, the longest drought of his career.

If the winless streak continues, it's bound to gnaw on a driver who has won four championships and 81 races, sixth on the all-time list. No other driver active today lives in such rarefied air. Part-timer Bill Elliott has 44 victories. Jimmie Johnson, who drives a car on which Gordon is the owner of record, has been to victory lane 40 times.

Worth noting is that eleven of Johnson's victories have come since Gordon won his last race, the Bank of America 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Oct. 13, 2007. Since then, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards have posted nine victories each.

Collectively, Johnson, Edwards and Busch are the yardstick by which Gordon must measure himself, if he is to realise his ambition of winning a championship under the Chase format.

Gordon appears to have his life in order. Now that daughter Ella is nearing her second birthday, he is more comfortable coping with the difficult balance between fatherhood, family and the ferocious competition he finds in his chosen profession.

Gordon's calm exterior, however, belies an intensely competitive nature that borders on ferocity when it comes to racing. A sense of improvement, and its accompanying platitudes, can go only so far.

"We're going to win races," Gordon said Sunday. "We're getting close. That was a heck of a battle there for second - had a lot of fun. We'll keep knocking on the door until we get into victory lane."

For his sake, let's hope that comes sooner rather than later, before the sweet taste of progress sours in the face of a prolonged drought.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News

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