NASCAR Then & Now: Tomorrow Never Knows for Jeff Gordon in '96 (Pt. I)

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IAugust 2, 2009

5 May 1996: Jeff Gordon looks on during the NASCAR Savemart 300 held at Sears Point in Sonoma, California.

Writer's Notes: This is for Yvette, who'll forever be my "Laker Girl" and confidant, even if tomorrow may rain. I'll just follow the sun, from here to California.

This will be one of three parts focusing on the exciting championship duel between a young motorsports star and an ageless, likable veteran who raced under the same roof with one goal: to win the 1996 NASCAR Winston Cup Series title.

Sure, it's not 1992 with a six-man championship battle, nor the dramatics of 1979-'84, '89-'90, or '93.

However, the fact that the honor of Cup champion was decided between teammates Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte made the '96 battle quite memorable.

In what could be seen as a 31-race long debate of "age against experience," I will chronicle both team's campaigns with insights (from the Gordon fanbase side) into what was a personal favorite title hunt in my 18-years of being a NASCAR fan.

So join in, discuss, and reflect on the 1996 championship battle between "The Iceman" and "The Rainbow Warrior."

Part One will look into the preseason story lines and title defense of '95 champion Gordon and his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet team during Daytona Speedweeks.

There are certain moments where a sports fan can recall an entire season of action much like their entire lives, remembering nearly every moment that elicits some fond emotions and thoughts.

While 1996 might not exactly be the most memorable year for NASCAR fans, upon personal reflection, it was a season of great change and bittersweet recollections down memory lane.

NASCAR enthusiasts will recall that year as the time that a beloved race track, North Wilkesboro Speedway, would see its finest Sundays after 50 years as a charter facility to the motorsports series.

The great change in mind was the shift from the short track roots of the sport to the big market, tri-oval cookie cutters that would occupy the NASCAR schedule starting in 1997 with Bruton Smith's Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA, established by Roger Penske.

Another big transition was the changing of guard with the sport's champion. Throughout the 1990s, veterans dominated the scene, with young guns nary getting a quality ride, much less, any ride that was respectable in the sport.

Unlike today's NASCAR, a young driver, ranging from age 24-36, would be lucky to be chauffeuring with the likes of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing, or Richard Childress Racing.

Although Dale Earnhardt was still the man (and to this day, an immortal legend) with the fans and prognosticators, there was a new face emerging as a challenger to the throne of "The Intimidator."

24-year-old Jeff Gordon truly began his championship addiction heading into that season, having captured the Winston Cup title in 1995 on the strength of seven victories, 17 top-fives, and 23 top-10 finishes.

Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont Refinishes Chevrolet team, led by crew chief Ray Evernham, worked out the aggressive kinks to the Californian's hard-charging driving style in his championship year.

Once an Achilles' heel for this upcoming force, Gordon and his No. 24 team became masters of the short tracks that once dogged them during their first two years of Cup racing.

Bristol International Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, Richmond International Raceway, and the aforementioned North Wilkesboro facilities were no longer houses of horror to this Hendrick Motorsports unit.

Rather, they became tracks that the No. 24 team absolutely excelled at with the likes of "The King Of Short Tracks" (aka the No. 2 Miller Ford team of Rusty Wallace).

With the exception of a fuel pump issue that relegated Gordon to a 36th-place DNF in the Mar. 5 running of the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond, the DuPont Chevy placed consistently in the top 10 with an average finish of 8.5 on the short tracks.

More significant than their short track turnaround was who "The Rainbow Warriors" defeated to win their first championship.

Gordon's seven victories at Rockingham, Atlanta, Bristol, Daytona, Loudon, Darlington, and Dover, as well as bagging eight poles, was pretty impressive.

How about besting "The Man In Black" and NASCAR's greatest team of the 1990s?

After all, Earnhardt and Childress had won the championship in every year of the '90s at that point, except in 1992 and '95.

As the saying goes, the sky was truly the limit for The Gordon Express for the '96 season.

Evernham and crew had to be pondering the opportunity to establish their dynastic march to the forefront of NASCAR Cup racing.

That's not to say that their title defense was going to be an easy one, especially with the talents that were racing against Gordon.

Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt ran a stout campaign against Gordon in '95, with a tour-leading 9.2 average finish to boot with five wins, 19 top-fives, and 23 top-10 finishes.

However, the 44-year-old racer would have a new leader in the pits with long-time RCR employee David Smith calling the shots for the year, replacing a two-time titlist in Petree, who returned "home" to the No. 33 Skoal Bandit/Leo Jackson Chevrolet team.

One of NASCAR's all-time "feel good" stories was written in '96, when Salinas, CA native Ernie Irvan made his full season return to the Cup ranks.

Irvan found himself behind the controls of the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford following his miraculous medical recovery from life-threatening injuries sustained in a vicious crash during a practice session in August of '94 at Michigan.

Competing in a trio of races driving a companion No. 88 Ford to teammate Dale Jarrett in the No. 28 entry, Irvan's sampling of his comeback resulted to two top-10 finishes at North Wilkesboro and Atlanta.

Robert Yates Racing endured a shaky '95 campaign with Jarrett essentially serving as a year-long substitute to their star driver in Irvan, collecting a single victory in the July Pocono race.

Ford, which sponsored the No. 15 team owned by long-time NASCAR loyalist Bud Moore, decided to flock elsewhere with their Quality Care brand for the '96 season.

Yates, who had the resources to run a two-car operation, acquired the Ford sponsorship to fully establish his No. 88 team, which would be led by Wallace pit crew member Todd Parrott and driven by "Respectful Dale."

Other title favorites heading into the 1996 championship season included Mark Martin, whose No. 6 Valvoline Ford became the perennial bridesmaid of the circuit, Sterling Marlin and the No. 4 Kodak Chevy from the Morgan-McClure Motorsports camp, and Terry Labonte, driver of the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet fielded by Hendrick Motorsports.

Martin had the consistency and calculation factor down pat to be a winner, with only his lack of a killer instinct attitude to aggressively get the Cup.

In the case for Marlin, the 37-year-old veteran suddenly became a versatile racer, netting his first non-plate victory in the TranSouth Financial 400 at Darlington in March.

Per usual, the No. 4 car also made trips to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500 and July running of the DieHard 500 at Talladega with those high-pitched engines built by Shelton "Runt" Pittman.

Could Marlin put together another complete season, with just a touch of consistency to strengthen their chances for a fan favorite first Cup trophy?

Only the Columbia, TN hero and his Tony Glover-led team could answer that question coming into the year.

Overlooked as the '96 season kicked-off was Labonte, the 1984 Cup champ who had become something of a rejuvenated driver from the moment he and sponsor Kellogg's joined Hendrick from the fledgling No. 14 team owned by Billy Hagan.

Labonte's latest highlight reel heading into the new year was his August victory at Bristol, when a crash happy Earnhardt tapped the No. 5 Chevy near the stripe as the checkered flag waved.

Fortunately for "Texas Terry," his No. 5 car crossed the line to record his third victory, albeit with a rather bowed-up front-clip and oil-splattered machine.

For fans of Labonte, as well as the driver himself, both had to be wondering if the best had come or was yet to be seen with a 12-year title drought in progress.

Nevertheless, the attention heading into the year was on Gordon and the DuPont team, who looked to repeat their success of 1995.

Having won at the 2.5 mile super speedway in the previous July, the team had to be ecstatic about their chances to capture a Daytona 500 title, which would certainly be a grand way to start their title defense.

Speedweeks at Daytona had different plans in mind for the No. 24 Chevrolet, although not immediately with the preliminary events.

Placing fourth in the second of the Daytona qualifying races, Gordon would start eighth in the 500 with a great shot at winning "The Great American Race."

Despite being shuffled back in the early laps, those DuPont colors ran amongst the leaders, racing the outside line to advance positions.

Suddenly, things ran astray for the reigning champions.

As the field ran double file from the fourth corner toward the dog-leg to complete lap eight of 200, Jeremy Mayfield, driving the No. 98 RCA Ford by Cale Yarborough, tangled with Gordon.

Mayfield's contact sent the No. 24 car into the outside retaining wall, with the right front fender impacting the concrete barrier with force.

With a crumpled up right front fender and mechanical pieces run afoul with the damaged Chevrolet, Gordon limped the DuPont machine to the garage area.

Even with the diligent repair efforts of Evernham and crew, Gordon sensed that the car was simply not up to specs to finish the race, wounded as it was for the champ.

"Jeremy Mayfield and I were side-by-side and we just touched," Gordon said per NASCAR.com article by Mark Auuman.

"I got real loose (and) went into the wall. It was real tight out there."

Determined to return to the track, the No. 24 crew sent their driver back on the "playing field" to salvage their day.

Returning to the race just after the halfway mark, Gordon kept his battered machine on the apron of the track, with his competitors zooming by him at full song and for the glory.

Deeming the No. 24 car as nothing but a hindrance and hazard on the track, Gordon returned to the garage area and exited the DuPont car.

Team 24 left Daytona with disappointment, finishing 42nd on what looked to be a promising start to the 1996 season. Rockingham was next on the cards for a Sunday filled with 400 miles of racing in the sand hills of North Carolina.

There was reason to believe that all would be right, since their '95 campaign started off rather auspiciously as well when Gordon placed 22nd after leading 61 circuits in that year's season opener at Daytona.

Following their "give away" at "The World Center of Racing," Gordon dominated at Rockingham by leading 329 of 492 laps for their first win at the 1.017-mile track.

Tomorrow was always a day away anyways for the team.

Would the No. 24 team be able to regain lost ground?

Or was this the beginning of a truly long season?

Find out the answer to that question and much more with next Sunday's edition of NASCAR Then & Now: Tomorrow Never Knows For Jeff Gordon in '96!