NASCAR Then and Now: How the '94 Coke 600 Made Jeff Gordon a Household Name
In any sport, an athlete will often have fond memories when recalling their first victory of anything.
Whether it's their first career win in regular season play, a post-season game, or a championship event, there's nothing quite like that moment when the contender celebrates their initiating moments as a victor.
On May 29, 1994, the career and life of 22-year-old Jeff Gordon would change drastically after 600 miles of racing around Charlotte Motor Speedway (now Lowe's Motor Speedway).
As the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit headed into the Concord, NC area for its rendition of "speedweeks," the talk of the season thus far was the battle for the points lead between the Robert Yates Racing Ford of Ernie Irvan and Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt.
Each driver had their share of victories, their taste of the top spot of the championship, and a chip on their shoulder to out-do each other's performances in every event.
There was also the storyline of a "tire war," when the established rubber kings of NASCAR in Goodyear were challenged by upstart but underdog company Hoosier Tires led by Geoff Bodine.
The rivalry brought a great divide in terms of loyalty with the Cup teams, where the Goodyear teams often had to contend with the Hoosier-shod teams that often started off fast in the races but faded toward the outset of the event.
Among the Hoosier drivers were Bodine, Darrell Waltrip and Ward Burton.
For 1993 Rookie-of-the-Year winner Gordon and his No. 24 DuPont Automotive Finishes team, '94 was looking like an forgettable season.
Starting off solid with a top-ten finishes at Daytona, Richmond, and Atlanta, the finishes for the Ray Evernham-led team fell by the wayside with a myriad of Did Not Finishes.
These poor finishes greatly impairing the Hendrick crew's chances to contend for the race wins and championship in 1994, falling from fourth in points to a lowly position of 18th heading into the races at CMS.
Charlotte's race weekends looked like a chance for Gordon and his team to start their rebound.
Although falling short in the '94 Winston All-Star Race which he gained entrance in by virtue of his victory in the All-Star preliminary race, the No. 24 team looked ready to have their cake in the Coca-Cola 600.
Things started off well for the DuPont team, capturing the Busch Pole Award on Qualifying Night with a then event-record speed of 181.439 miles per hour.
Gordon's pole would start an incredible streak of five consecutive pole positions in the 600, starting from '94 until his great third title season of 1998.
When raceday arrived, the No. 24 team entered the picture too not merely as show-ins at the track, but as legit race contenders for the longest race of the season.
Gordon had an impressive showing and finish in the '93 600-miler with his runner-up result to Earnhardt, which was the first time that the grueling race was held under twilight conditions.
The '94 Coca-Cola 600 shaped up to be among the season's most competitive races of the season, with 25 lead changes among eight drivers.
Pole-sitter Gordon led the first lap, but would relinquish the command of the race to Hoosier-shod and flagship driver Bodine for the next three laps.
Bodine's younger brother, Brett, took the lead spot for seven circuits, only to have the top position lost to hard-luck driver Rick Mast.
Geoff Bodine would lead the charge for most of the first half of the 600, with '89 titlist and 1990 Coca-Cola 600 winner Wallace assuming command of the race in the second half of the event.
It looked like a race that would belong the Ford contingency, as the Blue Ovalists led for a combined total of 375 of 400 laps.
Chevrolet would only lead the remaining 25, with 1993 Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett leading nine circuits with his late-race charge to the top-five and some contender named Gordon mingling with the veterans and champions of the Cup ranks.
Staying in contention all race-long from the transition of dusk to nighttime skies, the No. 24 team dealt with a Chevrolet Lumina that was temperamental to the changing track conditions that went from tight to loose and vice versa.
Following the race's ninth and final caution due to Morgan Shepherd's crash in turn two, the race resumed into a long, green-flag battle of equipment endurance and strategy in the pits.
The conventional thinking for the crew chiefs and drivers of the time was to take on four fresh tires and fuel to prepare for a short sprint to the finish. After all, these cars and drivers were worn out, and taking a gamble in the late portion of the 600-miler was absurd.
Bodine, Wallace, and Jarrett elected to take on four tires and fuel as the race reached the final quarter mark to the checkered flag.
Evernham and company decided to throw the conservative playbook away and go with the unconventional strategy of two tires and fuel.
Four-tire stops were not the sub-14 second showcases that we are spoiled to with today's NASCAR. Instead, they were performed at a "pathetic" speed of 18 to 22 seconds.
A two-tire and fuel service job on pit road would take nearly half the time for a full-service stop, ranging from nine to 11 precious seconds.
Out-thinking the field and competitors on that late May night, Evernham's gamble for his driver and team propelled Gordon into a prime position to take home the checkers.
Only one obstacle remained in the way of the No. 24 team in the form of ex-teammate Ricky Rudd, who elected to go independent in '94 with his new No. 10 Tide Ford team.
Rudd stayed out to take the lead for a brief time until lap 391, in which he came in for his final stop of the night.
His stop resulted in Gordon's Chevrolet taking the lead, which became the night's 25th and final change for the number one spot.
The result was 180 precious Winston Cup points, a jump in the points standings to 13th place, and something called the first career Cup win for Gordon, Evernham and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team.
It's hard to believe that Gordon's first win occurred 15 years ago, but indeed, the motorsports world was treated to one of the sport's biggest changes when a tearful and overjoyed Vallejo, Calif. native entered Charlotte's Victory Lane.
Struggling for words when interviewed by TBS Sports pit reporter Randy Pemberton, although not immediately, Gordon's trip to the CMS grounds of Victory Lane would commence the start of the Californian's winning ways.
The outsider of the sport, Gordon, who was a teenaged superstar in the open-wheel and dirt-track ranks in Midwest America in his brief tenure in the World of Outlaws and USAC ranks, finally felt like his place in stock car racing was firmly established with his 600-miler win.
Finishing second that night was Wallace, who was absolutely shocked that a driver who took only two fresh tires with 25 laps to go could run as well as the "full-service gang."
Unfortunately for Wallace, he would repeat his role as the runner-up twice more in the '97 and '98 600 races, defeated by Gordon in each of those cases.
While the scenery in the sport has changed greatly in terms of the number of races, the venues visited and the field of drivers comprising the now NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, there's one driver who has remained a force on the circuit.
Though older and seasoned, Gordon is still the competitor to contend with on raceday and for the championship, having led the points standings for eight of the 11 races thus far in 2009.
With the 15th anniversary of his first win in the Cup series approaching, maybe Gordon and his crew, now led by crew chief Steve Letarte, will turn on the way-back machine for career win No. 83.
Some gambles pay off, some fall short.
But when it usually comes to wins and high stakes on the line, one name that comes through is Jeff Gordon.
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