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Gordon stays cool when tempers flare

His hair is perfect.

Jeff Gordon has boyish charm, quick wit and a beautiful wife. His chin is always clean-shaven. Even his car has a cheery paint scheme. Has anyone ever heard him cuss?

Gordon's image is squeaky clean.

It also is a tad misleading.

Gordon, who can clinch his fourth Winston Cup championship in today's Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, isn't shy about where he puts the nose of his No. 24 Chevrolet. A fierce competitor, he uses a variety of tactics and every inch of a track in his quest to finish first.

"When he gets behind the wheel of the race car he can be as aggressive as anybody out there," said Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief. "He can be as aggressive as Dale Earnhardt was. Yet, when Jeff does it, he looks so much smoother doing it that he makes you say, "How did that happen?' "

During a season in which many young drivers have struggled to walk the thin line between aggressive and reckless, Gordon seems to have mastered the concept. He knows just how far to push each competitor in any situation _ short tracks, new tracks, road courses, superspeedways _ without crossing the line.

Always within the rules, always with a smile.

"Sometimes you make moves that are instinctive and not necessarily something that's planned," said Gordon, 30, whose leads active drivers with 58 victories. "Maybe it's viewed as being too aggressive, but if it wins you the race or gets you the position, it did what you needed it to do."

Of his series-best six victories this season, three were the result of daring late-race maneuvers:

+ At Michigan in June, Gordon zigzagged through traffic, running three-wide at times, to come from 10th place with 25 laps left. He passed Sterling Marlin for the lead with seven to go, saying, "When you've got a good car, you've got to put it on the edge."

+ At Indianapolis in August, Gordon took the lead on a restart with 24 laps left by bumping Marlin's No. 40 from behind, then diving low in front of the lapped car of Todd Bodine.

+ At Kansas in September, Gordon tried everything he could to pass leader Mark Martin. Having exhausted his on-track options, he dropped onto the apron to take the position with 21 laps left.

"I was paying very close attention at the drivers' meeting because they said there was no out of bounds," Gordon said. "I almost lost the car. Mark was holding me down. But I wasn't going to lift because I knew that was the defining moment when we were going to win the race."

Gordon keeps his name out of discussions about rough driving by stopping short of spinning his competitors and keeping his cool in volatile situations. At Bristol in March, he tapped Tony Stewart's back bumper to take away fourth, then left Stewart looking like the bad guy for ramming Gordon on pit road.

The word on Gordon: He races clean, but hard.

"The fact that he doesn't knock people out of the way or that he doesn't yell and scream and pout doesn't mean he's not competitive," said Ray Evernham, Gordon's former crew chief for 50 victories and three titles. "He's a good racer. He's competitive enough that he might give you a little bump and slide you over a little bit, but he won't wreck you."

For years, the last car any driver wanted to see in his rearview mirror was the black No. 3 of Earnhardt, who died in a last-lap wreck at the Daytona 500 in February. Gordon deflects any suggestion he is assuming Earnhardt's role in the sport, but he can intimidate.

"Jeff is a guy who will get you mirror driving because he'll be all over the back of you moving around," said John Andretti, driver of the No. 43 Dodge. "He wants to win the race, but you'll make a mistake before he takes it from you."

At Watkins Glen in August, Gordon proved he could take what he dishes out. Battling Jeff Burton on the last lap on the narrow road course, Gordon slid all over the track to protect his lead and withstood a love tap in the final turn.

"He didn't even budge," Burton said.

Gordon can clinch the title today by picking up 44 points on second-place Ricky Rudd _ a difference of roughly a dozen positions _ or by finishing at least 28th in the three remaining races. In winning a fourth championship, he would trail only Richard Petty and Earnhardt, who share the record of seven.

Yet all this time the assumption was Gordon skated effortlessly to those victories and championships, that his driving style was as charmed as his life.

Think again.

"I sit up there and shake my head all the time at the moves he makes," Loomis said. "But he has that feel, and 99 percent of the time he makes those moves stick."