NASCAR Then and Now: Jeff Gordon Wins First Cup Championship in 1995

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IJanuary 15, 2010

David Taylor/Getty Images

It was the year in which NASCAR truly entered the world of pop culture and mainstream media as a blossoming sport with spectator turnouts only rivaled by the NFL.

Sports Illustrated finally gave the sports its well-earned attention by spotlighting a race weekend that summer, in which a new face emerged to the forefront as a Cup racing superstar.

At the time, the sport was dominated by the likes of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who was arguably the man who gave fits to guys like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, and Ricky Rudd.

No matter what those drivers threw at "The Intimidator," the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy team simply turned up their performances two notches, often winning or placing consistently within the top-10 en-route to their titles.

So when the 1995 season was under way, many fans and prognosticators felt it was going to be another Earnhardt year, with the 45-year-old Kannapolis, NC native hoisting his eighth (and record-breaking) Winston Cup title in November at Atlanta. Why not?

His rapport with crew chief Andy Petree was solid and strong, and his pit crew, dubbed "The Flying Aces," were among the best of the business in busting out lightning-fast, four-tire stops.

Not to mention that Chevrolet was introducing their Monte Carlo model, a far superior body to their aging Lumnia car. The trend was for a sleeker, more aero-friendly vehicle that would produce great downforce numbers and cut the air cleaner in traffic.

The result was what General Motors happily accepted after dominating the 31-race long campaign, winning all but 10 events that season. No doubt, the Chevrolet camp had to be ecstatic with the performance of their new car with victories and a Cup title.

However, the man who delivered the Bowtie Brigade their fifth Cup title in six years was a 24-year-old Californian (or Hooiser State native) by the name of Jeff Gordon.

Jeff Gordon who? Well, the third-year racer emerged as a solid Cup contender, who was a successful open-wheel champion who made a full-time transition to stock cars in 1991 under the Busch (now Nationwide) Series.

While a highly talented driver, Gordon had the tendency to occasionally over-drive the cars, often resulting in crumpled-up sheet metal and DNFs.

Like others before him, the young driver would eventually harness his aggression and hone his raw skills. After all, many of the greats before him had their initiation years before evolving into champions.

In the case of Gordon, his Winston Cup title may have come as a surprise to some fans and critics. Considering that he had not finished races at Bristol, TN and felt as if he "fell off his seat" in the long-endurance marathons at Dover, DE prior to the '95 season, Gordon stepped up his game by several miles as an amazing Cup racer.

Things weren't so great at the season opener in Daytona, when a botched pit-stop resulted in the "Rainbow Warriors" finishing in 22nd position, a disappointing finish with a car that had the makings of race champion all over it.

That would be one of the few mistakes that the No. 24 team would commit all year-long, as the DuPont crew basked in victories, top-fives, and top-10s by the surplus.

There was the Coca-Cola 600 blunder, when the DuPont Chevy lost a wheel due around lap 80. A costly gamble by crew chief Ray Evernham, the innovative headwrench would receive a $50,000 fine, which was the largest in NASCAR history at the time.

Save for those occasional mistakes, Gordon didn't win just at any track that year. He conquered places like Rockingham, Atlanta, and Bristol in the spring, Daytona, New Hampshire, and Darlington in the summer, and Dover in the fall.

Perhaps his most prestigious victory of the year was the Southern 500 at Darlington, where Gordon polished his driving style at "The Lady In Black." Despite an early-race tangle, he learned how to ride along the high line of the track, right up near the wall to gain optimum traction at the narrow-laned, egg-shaped facility.

Astute coaching, excellent stops, and a strong car resulted in the first of Gordon's four consecutive 500-miler wins at Darlington Raceway.

Short tracks became one of his strongest facets on the NASCAR circuit, often running up-front with Wallace, Earnhardt, and Labonte.

His conquest of Bristol was probably the biggest sign of encouragement from the Rick Hendrick-owned team, with the young gun finally adapting to the white-knuckle, high-banked racing at "The World's Fastest Half-Mile."

Besides his mastery of the short tracks, Gordon developed his racing mindset of pushing a less than stellar place car into a far-better finish.

If there were days when he didn't have a winner, he settled for a good finish rather than trading paint and crashing for a near-impossible victory.

Wrecked primary car?

No worries. Gordon simply rose to the occasion, piloting his back-up machines to a victory at New Hampshire (in which he earned his first, true stint as the series' points leader) and a third-place result in the August race at Michigan.

Ill-handling beast?

How does a sixth-place finish at Indy sound? Or eight at Talladega in July?

Dominant car?

Except for his Pocono shift gaffe in June, more times than not, Gordon capitalized those opportunities with victories at The Rock, Bristol, Darlington, and Dover.

Through solid teamwork led by Evernham, the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet often ran up front rather than racing around mid-pack.

Leading the tour in laps led (2610), victories (seven), and poles (eight), Gordon and team established the No. 24 as the team to beat for the next 15 years.

Nary a race happened when the young team struggled on the track. Ironically, it was at the season finale when the team was at its worst, although their strong performances and finishes was just enough to win the title despite the strong late-year rally by Earnhardt and company.

At the time, the sport was a game owned by middle-aged veterans, who were well-liked, hard-working personalities who traditionalists could identify with easily. NASCAR's old guard had raced against the likes of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, and Neil Bonnett.

A changing of the guard was in place in 1995, when a young man, who possessed few of those old school traits, came into the scene and won Hendrick Motorsports its first championship.

His personality was amiable and articulate, a bit like Cole Trickle but with a wide-eyed gaze into the unknown possibilities for his future in racing.

From that year on, HMS became not only Chevrolet's strongest team, but the most dominant NASCAR force around, a quality that remains to this day.

Gordon would also change the prospect of stock car racing. Not only did he establish himself as a perennial contender and victor, he ushered in the young gun era.

That period, which still continues in 2010, has sponsors endorsing the need for young, fresh faced talents driving for top-notch teams and equipment in the Cup series.

Guys like Jimmie Johnson, his teammate and four-time titlist, the Busch brothers, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne can attest to their successful careers in part to Gordon's pioneering as a raw, young talent driving for one of the best teams in the sport.

For fans who may have missed out in 1995, some races are available for viewing on YouTube. Books, magazines, and merchandising like die-cast vehicles are around to commemorate one of the sport's spectacular seasons, one lost in the shadows to 1979-'83, 1989-'90, and 1992, years in which there were spectacular title fights.

It was the year that defined a future hall-of-famer, who brought the sport into prime-time, network TV and mainstream culture. When Gordon won his first title, race fans literally needed a copy of TV Guide to tell them what channel the races would be televised on race day, which could have been ESPN, ABC, CBS, TNN, or TBS.

Nowadays, it's homogenized to a point where fans distinguish particular segments of the season as "The Fox period," "TNT," and "ESPN/ABC."

Gordon's 1995 championship may not have the excitement of the '97 title, in which some late-season hiccups resulted in the closest one-two-three finish in championship history, the prestige of '98 and the jubilation of 2001.

After all, who'd knew that the 1995 season would have produced such tremendous advances and successes for a sport that has become as prominent as its stick-and-ball rivals?


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