The year is 1998. In route to his third championship, Jeff Gordon wins 13 of 33 races, after winning 10 in both 1996 and 1997.
At driver introductions, a thousands-strong host of “boos” greets Gordon. His only consolation: Dale Earnhardt’s quote, “At least they’re making noise. It’s when they stop making noise that you know something’s wrong.”
In NASCAR, drivers that are successful are shunned, especially ones who act unlike everyone else: the articulate, young, skinny, California kid among the Southern grease monkeys. If anyone tried to pick a fight, Gordon would have lost.
But Gordon did his fighting on the racetrack. By the end of 1998, he had won 42 races, putting him 14th on the all-time win list at the time. This made him the most hated man in NASCAR. Come race day, fans pleaded, “Anyone but Gordon.”
It now takes only three syllables to describe NASCAR in the 90’s: “Jeff Gordon.”
Fast forward to 2002. Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon team up and each put in a 50/50 stake in a new team, and they hire Jimmie Johnson as their driver.
Fast forward to 2010. Jimmie Johnson has 50 wins and four championships. Fans now plead, “Anyone but Jimmie… even Jeff.”
Since Johnson emerged, Jeff has won only 23 times, a bit more than half of the first half of his career, but most importantly, no championships.
This season, we’ve seen the fighting Jeff more so than we’ve seen in the past few years.
We’ve seen a Jeff Gordon trying to dispel any more rumors that he’s about to retire, and wants to prove that he can still do this long enough for his yet-to-be-born son to experience his dad winning.
We’ve seen a Jeff Gordon tired of going home short.
Finally, we’ve seen a Jeff Gordon who wants to do anything take back the title of “the best” from Jimmie Johnson.
Gordon’s former crew chief, Ray Evernham, offered a few comments as to why he hasn’t been his ‘90’s self the past few years.
According to Evernham, working with a driver with the caliber and records of Jeff Gordon is intimidating. Current crew chief Steve Letarte, as good as he is, has still got to be a little intimidated by Jeff Gordon.
What this means is a hesitancy to coach him. Gordon is the best; where is it Letarte’s place to coach him? Gordon should be coaching Letarte.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way. The crew chief is the coach. The crew chief has the knowledge, the information, and the luxury of not having to concentrate on driving a car 180 mph. This puts the crew chief in a much better position to make the types of calls a coach would make.
Fortunately, the duo is getting better. Gordon couldawouldashoulda won three or four races this year, only to be narrowly shut out each time. This has lit a fire under him I haven’t seen…ever, really.
The Jeff Gordon of the ‘90’s was a fierce competitor, don’t get me wrong. You don’t get to be the second winningest driver in the modern era without being that.
But the Jeff Gordon of today is quite simply mad...mad that he’s dominating but not winning, mad that the rules keep biting him, and mad that his protégé has stolen his own thunder.
Jeff Gordon is out there to prove that he is still the driver he was in the ‘90’s, and is determined to finish 2010 like it’s 1998.
Who cares if that makes him the most hated driver once again? That’s when he won the most.