After struggling throughout the 2008 season, not to mention riding the longest winless streak of his Sprint Cup career (43 races), the Jeff Gordon of 2009 looked more like the Jeff Gordon of the mid-to-late 1990s this past Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

After struggling throughout the 2008 season, not to mention riding the longest winless streak of his Sprint Cup career (43 races), the Jeff Gordon of 2009 looked more like the Jeff Gordon of the mid-to-late 1990s this past Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

And we all know what the Jeff Gordon of the '90s accomplished – three Cup championships (plus a fourth in 2001) – and the majority of the 81 victories that he has earned in his career.

Gordon has been looking for a breakout and breakthrough race and this past Sunday he finally got it, finishing a close second to Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, who won his second consecutive race this season.

The exciting finish this past Sunday promises another great race this coming Sunday in the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And Gordon's confidence is sky-high heading into that event.

"I'm so excited about this race team right now," Gordon said. "We're head and shoulders above where we were."

And the reason?

"It's called getting beat and not liking it," Gordon said with a big smile on his face.

Indeed, Gordon suffered through last season with constant questions and criticism of both himself and, even more, crew chief Steve Letarte. With each passing race that Gordon failed to reach victory lane, calls for Letarte's firing grew louder.

But Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick never wavered in their support of Letarte.

"I'm so proud of Steve," Gordon said. "He got beat up so bad by a lot of people. It's tough being the crew chief of that Chevrolet; there's a lot of pressure and expectations.

"Over this off-season, he restructured his engineering group and went to work on the cars, the setups, listening to me and what I feel like I need. Those guys worked hard."

But they weren't the only ones who worked hard. Gordon took a long look inside himself during the off-season, wondering how much longer he'd race and thinking about his wife and young baby.

"I changed my routine, too," Gordon said. "I've worked harder over this off-season getting myself in shape than I have in a long time. I'm refocused. I'm a little bit more used to being a dad now. I'm just ready."

And being ready is bad news for his opponents, particularly with the way Gordon drove at Fontana. Had his car not tightened up in the closing laps, he may have been able to make a run at Kenseth.

While that never materialized, Gordon couldn't be happier, particularly about finally getting a handle on the new-style car that NASCAR adopted last season.

Throughout 2008, Gordon and Letarte tried everything they could to get the car to handle properly, especially to Gordon's liking. But it seems the harder they tried, the worst the car got.

Not so this season, though. Gordon began the season with a 13th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and then recorded his runner-up showing at Fontana.

"I felt like we had the car (to win)," Gordon said. "When I started running (Kenseth) down, I was like, 'We got him, we got him.' Then my car started getting tighter and tighter and tighter.

"As I got to him, I moved around, went to every groove I could possibly find, and the car just wouldn't turn. I kind of knew with about 20 (laps) to go that we probably, unless he made a mistake, weren't going to get him.

"I put a lot of heat on him. I drove as hard as I've driven in a long time. He didn't make any mistakes. Maybe one little slip up, but just wasn't enough for me to do anything with him. So, you know, I have to give those guys a lot of credit, too."

As he comes into Las Vegas, Gordon is second in the Sprint Cup points standings, just 81 points behind series leader Kenseth.

"I love the way the car was driving," Gordon said of his Fontana car. "To be able to battle and go to the front like that, have solid pit stops, I'm just really, really excited."

But, he admits, "I'm also really bummed out we didn't win the race. I ran as hard as I could and had a great race. I'm really proud of this team. It's a great start to the season."

Still, Gordon now knows that after Sunday's race at Fontana, he's ready to return to his winning ways. It may be a bit early to start thinking about winning a fifth championship, but he's ready for whatever comes his way.

"(The race at Fontana) was to me a sign of what we were going to see more of this season," Gordon said. "I feel better today going in and after the race than I felt in a long time.

"I just feel good when I get in the car. The car is driving good. It's just starting off right. I think we only have room for improvement."

Jerry Bonkowski can be reached at Motorsportwriter@msn.com.

DRIVER PROFILE:
JEFF GORDON

Why he’s in the news: Looked like the Jeff Gordon of old this past Sunday at Fontana, Calif. Almost won the race, which would have broken a winless streak that dates back to October 2007, finishing a close second to Matt Kenseth, who won his second consecutive race.

Quote from him: "You know, tonight was to me a sign of what we we're going to see more of this season. Those guys were incredible in the pits." – Jeff Gordon is invigorated about his team's chances after Sunday's near-win at Fontana, Calif.

Number to know: 43 – The number of races Gordon has gone without a Sprint Cup series win, the longest winless streak of his career. His last triumph was Oct. 13, 2007 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., edging Clint Bowyer and former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Busch.