Southern 500 at Darlington 2013: Tracing Jeff Gordon's Ageless Excellence
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Every element of why Jeff Gordon remains a competitive NASCAR threat in his 22nd season shone bright in Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway—a timeless venue in and of itself.
There was Gordon, sliding by 28-year-old Kyle Busch for third and putting pressure on 33-year-old Denny Hamlin in second with the checkered flag in sight, battling to the very end of the four-hour, 500-mile race in his 700th consecutive start.
It was NASCAR's youngest four-time champion in classic form, performing like the kids while in the sport's elder statesman role into which he's naturally transcended.
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Gordon now owns a whopping 300 career top-five finishes in NASCAR's top division to go with his 87 career wins. Both achievements are a testament to Gordon's abilities as a driver, as a negotiator and a thinker, both on and off the track. They speak to his ability to handle unimaginable success without being overburdened by the excess.
NASCAR's former "Wonder Boy" doesn't wield the same cachet that he once did, but it was the lessons and abilities Gordon learned and applied en route to four titles within his first nine full-time seasons that buoyed him to his still-current status of evergreen contender. In a sport where turnover and change seem more repetitive than the left turns, that's nothing short of impressive.
For Gordon, NASCAR success has come thanks to three areas in which he routinely flourishes: driving skills developed and applied on a wide range of mediums, a prescience to understand when and when not to push the envelope and a keen business sense that tamped distractions and developed a true brand.
Consistency in Contracts
Perhaps the smartest thing Jeff Gordon ever did was to take a stab at stock cars in 1991. That divergence from his assumed path to open-wheel ranks saved him from the nasty split that divided and basically chopped off Indy-style racing at its knees just five years later.
But the second smartest decision Gordon ever made was to sign a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports in 1999. Fresh off his third Cup Series title in four years (winding up just shy of taking all four when teammate Terry Labonte won the 1996 title), the contract was excellent for HMS.
It's still pretty great for HMS in 2013, but in the 14 years of its authority, the contract has awarded Gordon with tangible benefits that can't be guaranteed in any standard yearly deal. Gordon hasn't dealt with contract negotiations, extensive rumors or lame-duck scenarios. Everything he has ever learned and done in a Cup Series car has come from the principles and processes employed by HMS.
Without that contract, some of Gordon's lean years could've been worse. Longtime sponsors could have bolted. Pressure would've mounted.
Instead, it's just been Gordon and his No. 24. And that's all it will ever be—a comforting non-factor when tackling a corner at 200 miles per hour.
Wide-Ranging Technical Abilities
The idiom "if it's not one thing, it's another" has a standard application to negative situations. But in Gordon's case, it's a great positive descriptor of his all-around abilities as a driver competing on tracks of all shapes and sizes.
Gordon's capability in NASCAR has never been stymied by the style of track. From the longest (Talladega Superspeedway) to the shortest (Martinsville Speedway), to the most standard of layouts (1.5-mile tracks like Atlanta, Charlotte, Texas, etc.), and the most quirky of designs (Pocono Raceway and the two road courses), wins and success have come at each.
In his career, Gordon has taken the green flag at 25 tracks and has won at 24 of them. The lone outlier, Kentucky Speedway, was added to the series schedule just two years ago.
Being able to put together success no matter the stop on tour made Gordon the immediate championship contender he became during his early years. In his more recent seasons, those multifaceted skills put Gordon in place to finish well consistently. There was no better example than the 30 top-10 finishes he recorded in 2007, which set the all-time NASCAR record.
Driving with Restraint, When Needed
Recent seasons have occasionally been maddening for fans of Gordon. The rate of wins has slowed (Gordon missed Victory Lane altogether in 2008 and 2010) and the emergence of teammate Jimmie Johnson as the sport's titan led to a sense of helpless jealously for his ardent fanbase.
It didn't help that Johnson seemed to be the second coming of Gordon with his high rate of wins and top-five finishes. Gordon also developed a bit of a reputation for losing spots on race restarts or other critical late-race situations, just as Johnson would typically make a run at the checkered flag.
Driver comparisons aside, such frustrations were likely the result of Gordon being the racer who so consistently finished races and avoided trouble on the track. Compared to Dale Earnhardt, Gordon shares very similar percentages of races finished and top fives earned.
But Gordon, in his measured ways, has finished 71 percent of his career races on the lead lap—nearly 20 percent higher than Earnhardt's career average. That method brought Gordon his titles during the old point system and nearly made it happen again in 2004 and 2007. It's a mentality of racing not easily changeable and ultimately one that car owners love.
There's little doubt that the age of Jeff Gordon dominating NASCAR has left for good. But while the competition has improved and the cars have changed, Gordon's still there and competing at a high level—a feat not easy in many leagues after 22 years.
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