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Same As He Ever Was: Why Jeff Gordon Is Still the Best in NASCAR

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IOctober 1, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 12:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 12, 2009 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

It was a picturesque scene in the makeshift victory lane for Jeff Gordon on a Sunday afternoon at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on Nov. 18, 2001.

NASCAR's greatest modern era star triumphed in his latest achievement when he was crowned that season's Winston Cup Champion, which would be his fourth title in his 10 seasons of racing.

Gordon immersed himself in the moment, realizing that his team had exorcised the demons that haunted them for the past two years. From the departure of his longtime mentor, friend and crew chief Ray Evernham to the fallout of his original core crew, hoisting that fourth title had to be the ultimate icing in the cake in silencing the critics and naysayers.

Sure, he won six races, led the most laps, and reestablished the No. 24 DuPont Chevy as the prominent contender on the track. However, his fourth championship suddenly catapulted the once "Wonder Boy" into elite status as one of the sport's greatest drivers.

After all, nobody else had won at least four championships other than Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who both had seven titles in their stellar and hall-of-fame careers.

Those same skeptics suddenly had reason to believe that Gordon would start going on a title winning spree, such as it was during the Californian's hey-days during the late 1990s.

Earnhardt may have very well owned the 1990s when he won four of his seven titles, all behind the wheel of his famous black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet.

The likes of Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, tried as they might, mounted fruitless efforts to overthrow NASCAR's "Man In Black" from the crown. While not short on talent, it seemed like nobody could overthrow the reigning majesty from his Winston Cup kingdom during the early 1990s.

Suddenly in late 1992, an outsider from a faraway village named Jeff Gordon arrived to Earnhardt's lands. Proving himself in a two year apprenticeship under "Lord Anheuser-Busch" and his gritty stock car series, the 21-year old sensation became a member of the House of Hendrick.

Hendrick Motorsports signed the once-promising and winning open-wheel star to pilot his No. 24 DuPont machines around NASCAR's toughest and most competitive lands. Like any other knight in waiting, Gordon received his share of cuts, bruises, and sometimes, hopeless days.

This legend has often been told often, but it is a remarkable tale that will one day be etched in stone and compiled with many a photograph and anecdote by the driver himself, as well as those who knew "The Rainbow Warrior."

Gordon announced his presence in Earnhardt's lands, beating "The Intimidator" at his own game by winning three Cup championships in 1995, '97, and '98.

Little did anyone know, but the scenery of stock car racing would forever change on Nov. 12, 1995. That particular date was especially painful for Earnhardt Nation because "King Dale" fell just 34 markers short of protecting his seat with the NASCAR dynasty.

A new ruler would affirm his place in the world of motorsports, with seemingly everything at his disposal.

  • Good equipment? Check.
  • Solid support crew. Count on it.
  • Amazing rapport with crucial team members? 10-4 on that.
  • Damn amazing skills? Undeniably so.

There is the old adage that "all good things must come to an end," and the case can be said for Gordon and his DuPont team.

Every great in any sport, be it baseball, cricket, football (American and international) and even racing have experienced their share of dynastic cycles.

One decade might be dominated by a particular talent, only to have another phenomenon take over to cast their stake in history. Fast forward to 2009 and the case be said in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Arguably, Jimmie Johnson has been the most winningest driver in the Cup ranks, logging in 44 victories, 21 pole positions, 112 top-five finishes, and 173 top-10 results. Without a doubt, Johnson has been the man of this decade as far as NASCAR racing is concerned.

Despite those amazing statistics, it would be foolish to dismiss the fact that there will be a time when Johnson's torrid victorious pace will slow down. After all, it happened to Petty, Earnhardt, and Gordon, who are each considered as one of the greatest, all-time NASCAR drivers in the sport's 61-year history.

Gordon's seemingly invisible ways were somewhat tarnished in this decade, winning only 33 times, 141 top-fives, and 211-top 10s since the 2000 season. In somewhat eye-boggling fashion, JG has collected 24 wins, 112 top-fives, and 165 top-10 finishes since Johnson's full-time debut in 2002.

So Driver 24 is not exactly the 20-something driver who reels off checkered flags much like John Larroquette won his four consecutive Emmy Awards in the 1980s. That said, Larroquette experienced something of a renaissance in his later years, winning a fifth honor for his guest spot on ABC's hit drama The Practice in 1998.

What does Larroquette have to do with Gordon, you may wonder?

Well, Larroquette won those four straight Emmys because of his outstanding portrayal as Dan Fielding, a comedic, yet tragically flawed character named who was beloved, consistent figure for the disillusioned world of the late 1980s.

Even when he experienced a flat during the majority of the 1990s, the New Orleans native resurrected his career and has since experienced tremendous success even when it seemed like his best days were behind him with the NBC sitcom Night Court.

The same may very well happen for Gordon, who could be seen as something of a flawed character. He experienced a turbulent decade, even with his fourth title in 2001.

Robbie Loomis, who was the crew chief during Gordon's most recent Cup title in 2001, has since departed the team to spearhead the efforts of Richard Petty Motorsports. Steve Letarte, who was once quite the apprentice under the No. 24 collective, elevated himself from a mere boy in the shop to the 30-year-old leader of a NASCAR legend.

Then there's Gordon's personal life, which took something of a roller-coaster ride off-the-track from his divorce from first wife Brooke to his second marriage with Ingrid Vandebosch.

Life, which could have unraveled before his eyes in 2003, revitalized itself with a stable family life, including his parents in Carol and John Bickford, daughter Ella Sofia and wife Ingrid. It seems like there's an extra step and motivation in Gordon's life, especially when pressed about his family.

That's certainly a long way from the android who seemingly could do no wrong in the 1990s, seemingly saying his victory lane speeches and conferences as if a teleprompter was in front of him.

Gone are those days when he praised God to the point insincerity was conceived in the back of fans' minds, as well as the oft-choreographed smiles and wearing of Ray-Ban shades.

Now, we see a Jeff Gordon who gets incensed when he gets knocked out of a race by his doing or from an accident on-the-track.

He does not accept any finish short of victory anymore, quick to show his disappointment much like any other human would after a long, competitive day on the playing field.

Case in point: After a stellar but heartbreaking runner-up finish at Martinsville in 2007, Gordon was absolutely furious that his teammate and reigning Cup champ Johnson defeated him at his best track.

Gordon's time for a fifth title will eventually come to fruition, whether it happens this year or the next. 2009 has been a story of a 38-year-old man who has come to appreciate his successes, understanding his failures, and being resolute to better himself and his team as the force to be reckoned with on the NASCAR circuit.

While teammate and once-student Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus may own this decade, when it comes to measuring the successes of two greats, Gordon is still simply the best overall in NASCAR.

Take away Jeff Gordon from the sport and the scenery changes. Sure, fans do not hate on Gordon as much like in the 1990s, when the rainbow-laden Chevrolet seemed to turn up in Victory Lane like the New York Yankees won their World Series from 1998-2000.

New York's title streak had to sicken Boston Red Sox fans much in the same vein as Gordon winning races and titles around that time, defeating the lions and wizards of the sport on talent and teamwork.

Today, success is still within reach for Gordon. He may be older and more calculative than aggressive, but the man once known as "The Wonderboy" may very well end his racing career with those seven driver's titles and perhaps within reach of David Pearson's 105 victories (second best in the all-time race winners' list).

Gordon has often said that he wants to keep on racing long enough so that his daughter will be able to remember her father on the track, driving the FireStorm colors of the No. 24 DuPont car around the NASCAR tour.

Who knows? Perhaps Ella Sofia may very well see the best in her father when he finally captures his fifth Cup title in 2009 and then some.

After all, Gordon is the master at overcoming slumps and adversities. From personnel changes to conflicts with his personal life, he has been able to adapt and succeed in almost every situation thrown at him.

Regardless of how many wins or titles that Gordon will accumulate for the remainder of his storied career, let the record and story be known that NASCAR and its fans perhaps witnessed its greatest driver in such a short, but prolific time span.

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