NASCAR Then & Now: Tomorrow Never Knows For Jeff Gordon In '96 (Pt. II)

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IAugust 9, 2009

27 Oct 1996: Jeff Gordon looks on before the NASCAR Dura Lube 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona.

As chronicled in Part One, defending NASCAR Winston Cup Series Champion Jeff Gordon started his 1996 campaign on an auspicious low note at Daytona.

With all the hype and build up for the season and for the 1995 titlists, their disappointing finish in "The Great American Race" left more to be desired for the No. 24 DuPont Refinishes team.

After all, this was the team that led the circuit in victories, laps led, and of course, the points total when the story of the '95 season was completed.

It was Gordon's breakout season after two respectable but inconsistent efforts from 1993-'94, successfully cementing his place amongst the NASCAR elite.

However, Gordon and team leader/crew chief Ray Evernham were left with more questions than answers when the tour traveled to Rockingham, N.C. for the Feb. 25 GM Goodwrench Service 400.

North Carolina Motor Speedway was a feast or famine track for No. 24 team, with Gordon struggling to the finish or winning. 

Despite the erratic record for Gordon at The Rock, a victory in the spring race in '95 gave the DuPont Chevy crew some hope that all would be alright heading into the race on Sunday.

Qualifying on the outside pole alongside teammate Terry Labonte, it appeared as if an elixir to their "Daytona Downfall" was already in the cards for Team Hendrick.

Labonte, who had about the most dominant car in Daytona, led for 44 laps in his No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet, only to fall back to a 24th place finish due to overheating problems.

Sunday's race at Rockingham looked like it'd be "Redemption Day" for Labonte and Gordon, who sorely needed a solid finish to make up for lost ground from the season opener.

Once again, Labonte was the class of the field, leading for 198 circuits on that picturesque Sunday afternoon in North Carolina. Teammate Gordon was running solidly amongst the leaders, with his rainbow laden Chevrolet staying in contention during the early going of the race.

Deja vu befell the No. 5 and 24 teams in more ways than one before the checkered flags flew over race winner Dale Earnhardt.

Engine failures ultimately sent "The Ironman" and "The Kid" into the garage area with disappointment and absolute devastation at how their race ended so prematurely.

Suddenly, the barrage of excuses and attacks encompassed the Hendrick camp. Chronicled in Part One, Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham, was "promoted" to Team Manager of the No. 25 Budweiser entry driven by Ken Schrader.

Evernham's added responsibility along with his role as Gordon's team was hypothesized as one of the reasons for the sluggish starts of Labonte and Gordon.

Upon reflection, it may have taken away some of his attention away from the DuPont team.

However, one can't help but wonder how Evernham was at fault for the misfortunes that greatly plagued their efforts in the first two races of '96.

Save for Gordon's lap 8 accident at Daytona and a blown motor after 134 laps of racing at Rockingham, the No. 24 car ran stout and probably would have contended for a win or top-five finish at each event.

Still, one had to wonder what was wrong with Gordon and the DuPont team. Was 1995 just a fluke for the No. 24 crew or were the first two races of 1996 just simply a case of the bad luck jitters?

Round three at Richmond answered those questions in a matter of two hours and fifty-five minutes, or 400 laps around a three-quarter mile asphalt arena.

One of racing's ironies occurred on Mar. 3, when Gordon not only completed his first race of the '96 season, but he captured the checkered flag as the winner of the Pontiac Excitement 400.

Richmond was not so kind to Gordon and his DuPont Chevrolet in '95, when a fuel pump problem relegated the No. 24 team to one of its worst finishes of the year in 36th position.

If rock bands name their tours after songs or albums, then Gordon and his DuPont Refinishes team ought to label their spring races of 1996 as "The Redemption Tour."

Redemption summed up that Sunday afternoon at Richmond, as well as the spring segment, as Team 24 had a memorable weekend where everything seemingly went right immediately after the car was unloaded "off the truck."

"We needed this (win) so bad," Gordon said in a post-race, Victory Lane interview with ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch. "They needed it, I needed it. I wanted to make sure their morale was getting down."

Equally as memorable as Gordon's win at the popular track was the sunny, but tremendously chilly conditions on that afternoon.

It seemed as if the only person who wasn't feeling the chills on that day was Gordon, who reluctantly put on a DuPont jacket provided by Bill "The Hat Man" Broderick, as the longtime NASCAR rep advised the champ to "...put this on, it's cold!"

Humorously, Gordon "protested" as he got settled into his jacket, excitedly telling Broderick, "Cold? Hey man, I'm not cold!"

Back in '96, anyone following the No. 24 team knew that a "long winless streak" went on for five races or more. Anyone following Gordon knew that a "slump" was in progress when they failed to reach victory lane after so many races.

How things change 13 years later, but that's just how things were for fans of NASCAR and/or Gordon. Talk about being cold back then.

In any case, there's a mantra in life that "you're only as good as your last performance," or in a driver and team's situation, their previous race.

Perhaps noted best by the media and fans, Gordon's struggles truly started following his seventh victory of the '95 campaign at Dover. Following that win, the No. 24 team only finished in the top 10 in three of the six final races.

Undoubtedly, the DuPont contingency looked very much like the team that ultimately won the '95 Winston Cup minus their shaky performances down the stretch.

Translation: Watch out, competiton! We're just getting started!

With Gordon poised and confident, and a wrenchead Evernham working in unison his supporting cast in the pit crew, the spring months shaped up to be a NASCAR version of the old Skittles motto: "Taste the Rainbow."

The Purolator 500 held on Mar. 10 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway served as a microcosm to the No. 24 team's season, perhaps summed up best by Katy Perry's song "Hot and Cold."

Busch Pole Day on Mar. 8 was not so kind to Gordon and the DuPont Chevy, qualifying a season low 21st position.

Like his winless streaks, there were nary a time when "The Kid" had a poor qualifying effort. 1996 saw Gordon average a 6.3 starting position, which is quite remarkable in today's NASCAR.

Then again, tomorrow never knows, especially with stock car racing back in '96 as opposed to the product on the track in 2009.

Despite their Friday setback, the 500-miler at Hampton, Ga. was yet another day of redemption for the Californian, finishing third with Earnhardt collecting win number two of the year.

Labonte placed second at the 1.522-mile oval, with corporate teammate Ken Schrader coming home in sixth position. Overall, it appeared as if Team Hendrick was setting up for a banner, stellar year.

Following a much needed off-weekend, the Winston Cup Series raced its way to "The Lady In Black," better known as Darlington Raceway.

This 1.366-mile egg-shaped speedway often lended itself to being a season-shaker, rattling the best of the sport and the youngest of the untamed lions of the tour.

It didn't care who you were, even if your last name was Earnhardt, Gordon, or Jarrett.

1996's TranSouth Financial 400 apparently did not care about the fuel mileage game in addition to her usual role in luring those million-dollar steel chariots into her seductive concrete walls.

Much like those mythological nymphs, Darlington's walls often teased and succeeded in tempting those "fools" driving those Chevrolet, Ford, and Pontiac machines.

Pole-sitter Ward Burton's day at the famed South Carolina facility lasted only 137 laps, collected in a multi-car accident on the frontstretch along with Lake Speed, Ernie Irvan, and Joe Nemechek.

How about two-time Daytona 500 winner and third-place starter Dale Jarrett?

Sure, Jarrett led for 10 circuits and was in position to contend for the win against Gordon and Bobby Labonte.

However, his No. 88 Quality Care Ford Thunderbird had a dry tank toward the conclusion of the race, sputtering its way down to pit lane for a costly stop and go service.

In perspective, only three drivers who placed in the top-10 starting spots finished within the top-10 window, with Gordon (started second, won), Rusty Wallace (eighth, fourth), and Morgan Shepherd (fourth, eighth) taking those honors.

Gordon triumphed for a second time in '96 (and at Darlington) following his third outside pole position, leading 189 of 293 laps for career victory number 11.

More importantly, the 24-year-old found himself climbing up the championship standings from his Daytona Debacle.

Once in the "pits" in 42nd spot, Gordon elevated to the ninth position in the points race, 168 markers behind leader Jarrett.

All things considered, the No. 24 team was relatively on pace with their banner '95 campaign despite their two early season DNFs.

Still, the season was young and that meant there were plenty of races to be had for every competitor on the circuit. Points were still up for grab and the pressure was starting to mount on some teams on the Winston Cup trail.

One driver, backed with a solid crew, that did not fold under the intense scrutiny of the media and grind of each race weekend was Gordon and the DuPont Refinishes team.

While tempers flared and frustration was mounting to early season highs, the No. 24 crew pressed forward on a mission, seemingly unstoppable on "The Southern Swing."

Bristol Motor Speedway's spring annual in the Mar. 31 Food City 500 was another stop added to the Gordon Express, simply rolling along at each Winner's Circle with the points and cash.

Some fans are quick to count the Bristol victory as one of the few "cheap" wins of Gordon's illustrious career because of the race being cut short due to rain.

That said, any triumph at this gritty, high banked concrete track, as Ringo Starr sang, "(It) Don't Come Easy."

Consider the fact that Gordon bested Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Earnhardt, Wallace, Jarrett, and Bobby Labonte. Yep, that's a cheap win for a driver who's only gone on to win 70 more times and three championships.

Gordon's third win of the season boosted him from ninth to sixth in the standings, cutting the points lead held by Jarrett from 168 to 133.

While the No. 24 team was two positions behind their pace in '95, their points margin from the championship leader was 21 points less than their title year.

Short track season surely treated Gordon quite well (that's a mouthful) in '96, perhaps serving as an impetus for the DuPont team's chances of even contending for the title despite their rocky start. (The short track season will be summed up in Part IV of the series.)

With victories at Richmond, Darlington, and Bristol, it appeared as if Team 24 was licking their chops for the Apr. 14 running of the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina.

Perhaps unbeknownst to reluctant race fans, NWS' days seemed all but numbered with its future beyond '96, at best, appearing questionable with the openings of Texas Motor Speedway and California Speedway.

Sacrifices and cuts would have to be made, but which track would receive the axe to make room for these two big markets?

While that question's tabled for the moment, the attention for fans and competitors was on that memorable 400-lap event, which became an instant classic from the get-go of the race.

Almost as infamous as the race being "Texas Terry's" 613th consecutive start, a record he had tied with Richard "The King" Petty, was radio personalities' John Boy and Billy's command for "Gentleman...and Jimmy Spencer, start your engines!"

For old school racing enthusiasts, NWS was simply a classic facility known for its incredibly rough track surface which destroyed the rubber off those Goodyear Eagles.

New school fans could probably liken the facility's surface to that of a Darlington Raceway, which chewed off the tire's durability to a maximum.

That year's First Union 400 was shaping up to be a duel between Wallace and Labonte, two legends with distinct driving styles.

Whereas Wallace was an aggressive, take-no-prisoner racer in his No. 2 Miller Ford Thunderbird, Labonte was the laid-back, calculating driver of the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet.

Both general characteristics played pivotal roles for the two former champions, especially on lap 375 of 400.

With just 26 laps remaining, Wallace simply could not avoid the lapped vehicles of Lake Speed, Wally Dallenbach Jr., and John Andretti in turn three.

Sitting in Wallace's path were water buckets sitting idle toward the wall separating the track surface to pit lane, and basically, you could imagine what happened here.

That's right, absolute pandemonium.

Wallace's sleek, black Thunderbird crashed right into the buckets, collecting the Fords of Speed, Dallenbach, and Andretti in the process.

Meanwhile, Labonte and Gordon, running in the top five, had to negotiate their way around the carnage of the third corner. Somehow finding a way out of that mess, the No. 5 and 24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo machines raced their way to "safety" in the form of a 1-2 finish.

Team owner Rick Hendrick just had to be delighted at his teams' historical day at the 0.625 mile paperclip track, with driver Labonte collecting his first win of '96 and Gordon collecting his fifth-consecutive top-three finish.

That Sunday's incredible day for Hendrick Motorsports saw Labonte leaving NWS in the third position in the title chase, 59 points behind Jarrett, and Gordon in a tie for fifth spot, 93 from the lead.

Unlike Gordon's atrocious month of February, the month of March was an absolute delight and welcoming sight which saw wins and top-three finishes being collected like gold records courtesy of "record producer" Bruce Dickinson.

April started off as another kind month for the No. 24 team, appearing more poised to defend their title against a horde of challengers.

The only question for Gordon and company was, "Were they peaking too soon?"

After all, consistency, not wins barraged by poor finishes, are what win titles in NASCAR.

Find out in Part III of "Tomorrow Never Knows," which will examine the latter spring races and early summer events of the 1996 NASCAR Winston Cup season.

More memorable anecdotes will be shared, along with, of course, a detailed perspective of Gordon's championship defending year.