Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Motor Mouth: Gordon already one of NASCAR's all-time best before 84th win

Jeff Gordon raises his trophy after Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 500
at Pocono Raceway. Credit: Karel Zubris for Skirts and Scuffs
After Jeff Gordon clinched his 84th Sprint Cup win on Sunday at Pocono Raceway, headlines popped up on the Internet like “Gordon cements place in NASCAR history” or “Gordon takes place along NASCAR greats.” While none of these headlines are wrong – Gordon stands tied with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for third-best on the all-time wins list – I couldn’t help but think that for many of us, Gordon had already carved a place for himself in the sport’s history as one of its all-time best.

At the tender age of 21, the fresh-faced, mustached Gordon made his first Cup start at Atlanta in 1992. No one knew then that the event, which also marked Richard Petty’s final race, symbolized a changing of the guard.

Throughout the 1990s, the young phenom and the No. 24 DuPont team, aka “The Rainbow Warriors,” were nearly unbeatable, much to the fury of the fans of – well, any other driver. His four titles place him in fourth on the list of most Cup championships, behind legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven each and teammate/protégé Jimmie Johnson with five. Now in his 19th full season and with two wins under his belt, the driver of the iconic No. 24 car is very much in the hunt for that elusive fifth title.

Gordon was a driver who you either loved or you hated. But even now, when you go to any racetrack, Gordon is one of the top three in drivers’ merchandise you’re most likely to see fans wearing. While he used to draw an even mix of boos and cheers from the fans in the stands, over the years those boos have turned into cheers. I was standing on pit road at Pocono with about 40 laps to go Sunday when Gordon passed Juan Pablo Montoya for the lead. There was no mistaking the crowd’s reaction: the place erupted into full-on cheers.

Though the wins have come less frequently – after six wins in 2007, Gordon has claimed just three more since – he never lost the support of his fans and even gained more along the way.

It was Gordon, who, with his California-boy good looks, charisma and well-spoken manner, helped catapult NASCAR into the mainstream. His appearances as co-host on “Live with Regis” and a hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” introduced NASCAR to new audiences. His name became synonymous with speed, as Nelly rapped in his 2000 single “E.I.”: “I drive fastly, call me Jeff Gordon, in the black SS with the navigation.”

With Gordon doing promotion for the upcoming Disney film “Cars 2,” yet another generation will come to know one of NASCAR’s all-time greats.

Jeff Gordon smiles before taking his qualifying lap
at Pocono. Credit: Karel Zubris for Skirts and Scuffs
“The Kid” who climbed into a Cup car for the first time nearly 19 years ago is now pushing 40. Gordon is a family man himself, with his wife Ingrid and their two children, Ella and Leo. But the driver of the No. 24 doesn’t plan on trading in his racecar for a rocking chair anytime soon.

“I am just so excited to be a part of this sport. I mean, I am going to be 40 this year. To have Ella and say hi to Leo at home and my wife Ingrid here, this is just an amazing experience to share this with my family,” Gordon said after Sunday’s race.

“Being a parent, I appreciate it more and it means more to experience things like this with them. I've never been one to really focus on age. When I was real young in the sport I said, ‘I'm not going to focus on being the young guy and let that hold us back.’ Now that I'm the old guy, I don't want that to hold me back either,” Gordon said.

When all is said and done, Jeff Gordon will go down in history as one of the greatest in the sport. Tied with one Hall of Famer and one inductee in wins, we're looking at a future Hall of Famer in action. Let’s take a look at Gordon’s career highlights:
  • Gordon’s first win came in 1994 at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. That same year, he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis - the first time NASCAR met the most prestigious track in all of motorsports - and forever cemented his name as the event’s first winner.
  •  Gordon reached his stride in 1995, starting a four-year period where he won 40 – count them – 40 races. In 1998 alone he won 13 races, a record for the modern era. And people complain when Jimmie Johnson wins a lot?
  •  “Four-time” won the title in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. Gordon finished 2nd in points in 1996 to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte, interrupting what could have been four consecutive titles.
  •  The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has won all of NASCAR’s premier races - and not just once, but multiple times: Daytona 500 (3), Brickyard 400 (4), Southern 500 (6), All-Star Race (3) and the Coca-Cola 600 (3). When Gordon won his first Daytona 500 in 1997 at 25 years old, he became the event’s youngest-ever winner, a record that would stand until this year when Trevor Bayne won at the age of 20.
  •  In 1997 Gordon won the All-Star Race, then called the Winston, with the notorious T-Rex car. The car featured a dinosaur on the hood to promote the movie “Jurassic Park.” Like the dinosaur on its hood, the T-Rex car would soon be extinct itself. Though the car was built within NASCAR’s rules – it pushed the limits without actually crossing them – after the race NASCAR officials asked crew chief Ray Evernham to not bring the car back to the track.
  •  Gordon’s 84 Cup wins are spread out across 24 racetracks, including tracks no longer on the schedule like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro. The only tracks Gordon has not won at are Homestead and Kentucky (the latter will hold its first Cup event this year).
  • Gordon has driven his entire Cup career for Hendrick Motorsports. In 19 years, Gordon has won races with five different crew chiefs: Ray Evernham, Brian Whitesell, Robbie Loomis, Steve Letarte and current CC Alan Gustafson.
  •  Throughout his Cup career, Gordon has had his share of nicknames: “Wonder Boy,” “The Kid,” “The Rainbow Warrior,” “Flash Gordon,” “Four-Time,” “Big Daddy.” Personally I’d like to add “The Ageless Wonder” to that list. Despite a few streaks of gray hair here and there, in my opinion Gordon doesn’t look like he’ll be turning 40 just two months from now.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below. To read past columns and other posts by Rebecca, click here.

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