The Frontstretch: Is Jeff Gordon's Drive For Five Permanently Stalled? by Danny Peters -- Tuesday November 17, 2009

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Is Jeff Gordon's Drive For Five Permanently Stalled?

The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday November 17, 2009

 

The whimsical 1986 movie “Short Circuit,” starring those giants of the big screen, Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg, is a story about the mad cap adventures of an artificially intelligent robot named “Number Five.” The premise of the tale sees the U.S. Military designed and owned robot brought to “life” by a freak power surge. It’s a heartwarming, if somewhat flippant tale, and those fans of the movie will certainly remember the robot at one point screaming to Ally Sheedy’s character that “Number Five is Alive!”

Relating this back to NASCAR and yeah, I bet you were wondering if I was actually going to get there, in the case of one Jeffrey Michael Gordon from Vallejo, CA, number five is not very much alive. Instead, if you’ll forgive the crass reference, Gordon’s “Drive for Five” has very much “short-circuited” all over again. Barring an alien abduction of the entire No. 48 team, the minute Jimmie J starts his engine at Homestead-Miami, Gordon’s quest for a fifth Championship will be officially over for 2009 — the eighth straight year the sport’s biggest trophy has been giftwrapped for someone else instead.

Now, at 38 years old, time is quickly running out for a man who’s well into the second half of his driving career. Suddenly, the question becomes whether can Gordon crest the hump and finally put a Sprint Cup trophy on his already burgeoning mantelpiece to go along with those four he won during the Winston era.

The answer, folks, appears to be “probably not.”

Before we get to the reasons why, let’s take a quick glance at Gordon’s incredible and impeccable credentials. For starters, he’s a four-time Cup Champion. Only the two first ballot Hall of Famers, King Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. have won more titles with seven apiece. He sits sixth on the all-time wins list with 82 — one behind Cale Yarborough and two behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison — so by the time he hangs up his driving gloves, he should be in third place behind only David Pearson (105 wins) and Richard Petty (200 wins). He’s won, just for the record, a staggering 14.1% of the races he’s entered (580) and of active drivers only (surprise, surprise) Jimmie J ranks above him at a 16.2% clip.

It’s been a historical career for Jeff Gordon, but are his championship years now behind him?

Gordon also sits fourth on the all-time poles list — one behind Cale, again – and has an average finish of 12.3. He’s led 20,738 laps, won three Daytona 500’s (1997, 1999, 2005) four Brickyard 400’s (1994, 1998, 2001, 2004), including the inaugural event, and three All-Star challenges (1995, 1997, 2001). Add to this list a record nine road course victories, a restrictor-plate best 12 victories, six wins at the revered Darlington, and you’ve got one heck of a career resume to flaunt. Oh, and did I mention he’s married to the smoking hot Ingrid? OK, that’s not strictly relevant… but I felt it was worth pointing out.

In short, then, Jeff Gordon has done just about everything in NASCAR. If he never drove another lap in anger on the Sprint Cup circuit, he would go down as arguably one of the top 5 best drivers in the history of the sport. But the trouble is, you can’t help but feel Gordon won’t be truly satisfied until he gets his hands on a Sprint Cup title to go along with all the other accolades and achievements that have been the hallmark of his career.

So let’s start with his most obvious impediment: Jimmie Johnson.

With the best will in the world, there still must be days when Gordon rues the recommendation he gave Mr. Hendrick to employ Johnson some eight years ago. If it wasn’t for Johnson, he would already have had his fifth title back in 2007. After a regular season of metronomic brilliance, Gordon averaged a 5.1 finish in the Chase and had a lowest finish of 11th through ten races. But his teammate and the man he shares office space with was even better, winning four of the last five races, averaging a 5.0 finish, and running away with the title by some 77 points. In 2004, the inaugural year of the Chase, Gordon was even closer, missing out by an agonizing 16 markers over Kurt Busch when one poor finish at Atlanta really wrecked his chances. At some point, after so many near-misses, in a sport where confidence in your ability cannot be overestimated, you can start believing it’s not meant to be. Just ask Mark Martin (bless him). It’s not just Jimmie, however, as despite all the many and varied criticisms there are of NASCAR today, one thing is undeniable: The competition is better and harder than ever before in the sport’s history. That plays a role, no question, for a man who’s been there, done that for nearly 20 years in the sport.

Another factor is his life circumstances, if you’ll pardon the banal way of putting that. Let me be clear here, I’m not suggesting for a minute that the birth of his daughter Ella has made him a worse driver. I don’t have children (yet) so I can’t speak from experience here, but all my friends who do tell me the moment they had their first child their lives changed irrevocably. It’s not a reason, but it’s a factor. After all, who doesn’t make their kids a number one priority? So again, I’m not saying Gordon’s not as dedicated as he was when he had the most ridiculous piece of upper-lip facial hair in the history of mustaches, but his priorities have shifted some, and that can play into things — especially in a sport that is defined by the tenths and hundredths of a second. Keep in mind that of the 12 drivers that made the Chase this season, just three have kids.

One thing that may also play into Gordon’s quest is the hard crashes he’s sustained. All drivers who have raced as long as he has have their wrecks to remember, but this man seems to have suffered more than most. There was the 2004 crash when he plowed nose first into Andy Hillenburg’s spun out car at Darlington, after which he said “I haven’t taken a hit like that, possibly ever, and certainly not a head-on shot.” Then there was the hugely hard lick at Pocono in August 2006, and the equally fierce crash at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2007 when he all but took out the flagstand. In 2008, there was the wreck at Las Vegas when he hit the inside wall with great ferocity, a move which prompted the powers-that-be to install SAFER barriers to go along with those already installed on the outer walls. And last but not least, one final wreck to mention would be the unusual and violent hit he sustained at Watkins Glen in an incident with Sam Hornish, Jr. earlier this year. As I said, all drivers take hits, but you can’t help but wonder how the combined effects on all these tough crashes affect Gordon’s back, his overall health, and his long-term prognosis as a Cup driver.

The Chase format probably hasn’t helped this legend, either. While it’s fair to say he runs better than most pretty much anywhere, if you look at his statistics in terms of average finish, only six Chase tracks make his top 20 list. Given the nature of the beast that is this format and given the strength of his teammate Johnson at said Chase venues it’s not, simply put, good news.

Last week, I wrote about Jimmie needing the validation of a fourth Championship. I don’t feel it’s quite the same for Jeff. If it happens, fantastic; but if it doesn’t, then he’ll retire as one of the greatest to ever strap on a pair of racing shoes. And despite what racing-reference.info lists as career earnings of $106,758,284, he’s still hard at it each and every week — a fact not lost among his fans and No. 24 haters alike.

So the question remains, can Gordon finally win a fifth title, or will his “Drive For Five” be forever stalled at four? I wouldn’t rule him out, per se. But if I was a betting man (which I’m not, really) my money would not be on Gordon collecting the trophy he’s coveted for so long. He signed up at HMS on a “long-term, lifetime” contract, so there’s no ticking clock as far as a ride goes, but you can’t help but feel he won’t be making the 36-race slog in his fifth decade like the ageless Mark Martin.

Still, fifth championship or not, Gordon’s legacy is rock solid secure. And for a kid who only ever wanted to race, that should be solace enough when he parks his famous No. 24 Chevy for the last time.

Contact Danny Peters

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Bill B
11/17/2009 07:22 AM
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Uhhh, everyone’s drive for a championship has stalled since the 48 team has hit their stride.

The Turnip!
11/17/2009 07:47 AM
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You mean Jeff survived very hard crashes, and was NOT driving the POS?

According to NA$CRAP, that is not possible!

That’s why we have the POS being shoved down our throats! Maybe everyone needs to look at the big picture, once and for all!

The “OLD” car was not that bad now was it?

And you could actually race it!

menards
11/17/2009 09:15 AM
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Jeff Gordon would be going for his 7th title on Sunday if we didnt have this chase crap

The Turnip!
11/17/2009 10:02 AM
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Right on “menards”!

The chase started a completely new era, old vs. new cannot even be compared anymore!

24-4-5
11/17/2009 10:27 AM
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24-4-5, that’s my screen name and will be until the day Jeff either gets his 5th championship or until he retires. I don’t consider him just one of the greats, I consider him the greatest driver of this era and I see no reason that he can’t get one, two or even three more championships. Had it not been for this fricken’ CHASE points system he’d be a contender to reach Petty and Sr. Give JJ his day(s) but those can’t last every year, and when JJ starts to sway, Gordon will be there, doing what he does best …. racing!!!!

Matt
11/17/2009 11:19 AM
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What’s most annoying to me is 2007, when Jeff had THE best 36 race season in the history of the sport (6 wins, 21 Top 5’s, 30 Top 10’s…THAT’S 30 OUT OF 36 RACES!!!!), yet didn’t win the championship! Totally ridiculous and in itself could be the sole reason nascrap is in such decline! The sport is dying a quick death!…and I don’t care at all!…the quicker, the better!!!

stan
11/17/2009 12:07 PM
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If he sticks with his present crew chief he has no chance at all. It seems that since he was the one that picked steve l he doesn’t want to admit that it’s not working, so i can’t see anything changing. No change, no title.

Bad Wolf
11/17/2009 12:07 PM
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The only redeeming factor of the Chase is that it did put an end to Gordons drive for 7. He was the tip of the spear bringing in the new yuppie fan base that cared more for image and being seen as opposed to the way it used to be. I used to watch the Rainbow Brigade at the track during qualifying and as soon as their boy Gordon took the flag and was locked in the field they would all get up and leave. To them Gordon was the show, and they were not going to stick around and watch those other hillbillys.

I really miss the old days (1992-1994) when on Monday mornings we would talk about “Crash Gordon” and how he could not handle a racecar. Then on what we considered a fluke he won at Charlotte in ’94, and later that year I was in the Tower Terrace at Indy and saw the Whiz Kid win the Inagural Brickyard 400. ( I don’t think he would have won if Dale Earnhardt had not hit the wall on lap one trying to beat Rick Mast to the line to lead the first lap)

I was also at Indy in 1998,(could have been 2001, can’t remember for sure which year this happened) when Jeff forgot to flip a switch in his car and could not do a burnout with his 750hp racecar after winning. I was right there and saw with my own eyes the tell tale tire marks on the track from his failed burnout attempt and can say with certainty that he had a little something extra in his ride at that time. I’m just sayin.

4EVER3
11/17/2009 12:13 PM
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I’d like to see Jeff get # 5.Keep expecting it to happen.

Matt
11/17/2009 12:18 PM
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bad wolf, you’re obviously an idiot! Go away fool!..no one cares about your jealous hater post!

Gordon82Wins
11/17/2009 12:23 PM
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Good article DP. I so, so wish that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have a season like Gordon in 2007, dominating but losing to the Chase. The Chase would then be gone forever in the blink of an eye.

Bill B
11/17/2009 12:43 PM
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Stan,
Wasn’t that the same crew chief that lead Gordon to that “best 36 race season ever” in 2007?

Let’s face it the only reason everyone else is looking lame is because of the dominance of the 48.

The Old Guy
11/17/2009 01:14 PM
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Jeff Gordon, of who I am not a fan, would, and should, have six championships.

The chase is a complete farce.

Mike
11/17/2009 01:34 PM
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I wish Jeff had gotten it before the 48 got going strong. I like Jeff alot and always have. I think anymore though, if the car’s not perfect, he doesn’t wanna drive it. Too picky. I guess as Jeff Gordon you can be picky but really….I mean. Get up on that wheel and make it happen Jeff.

BTW, I hope the 48 wins 15 in a row! Go Jimmie!!!!!

The Turnip!
11/17/2009 02:56 PM
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Hey 24-4-5, please define the following: “him the greatest driver of this era”.

THIS ERA” to be exact.

I am neither a JG lover or hater, or even in between, but certainly applaud the talent level he has! Has been good for the sport for sure.

24-4-5
11/17/2009 03:12 PM
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Hey Turnip, my interpretation of ‘this era’ is pretty much anything this side of say the early 90’s, when NASCAR was starting to become more than just a quick segment of highlights on ESPN. This ‘era’ in my opinion only, consists of JG, Smoke, Waltrip, Sr. and Jr., Rudd, Labonte, Marlin, Martin, JJ, and so many others, both recently retired or recently,within the past few years, hired (i.e. Shrub and Logano). I honestly can say that I wasn’t into NASCAR much while living in Florida, in the 80’s, but when I moved back to Michigan in the early 90’s I started following the sport more and became a fan. I’ll stay a fan, even the way the France family is taking NASCAR down the drain, but I’ll stick with it, because I know it’ll get better .. it’ll take some time and a lot of people in the heirarchy getting fired, but it will happen!!

Loria Anderson
11/17/2009 03:52 PM
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Jeff would have had 6 championships running the good old fashioned way of whoever can be the best over 36 races not ten. to have to have points given to you to catch up with the leader so you win a championship is not right.

Dan
11/17/2009 05:15 PM
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Been a Gordon fan ever since he started dusting the #3 and making Sr fans turn red from anger. I think Jeff’s championship days are over. I honestly think he struggles with the COT and it is sad when he says he is happy with just a top 5 finish.I’ve heard that more than once from him. His great days are behind him. Maybe I just expect too much from him now because of his past.

The Turnip!
11/17/2009 05:40 PM
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Hey 24-4-5, thanks for your interpretation of “this era”!

Have to mull it over where JG would stand in my mind of all drivers of this “era”!

Oh, Michigan here also by the way.

I will say however I certainly don’t agree NA$CRAP is going to change anytime soon. It is a family business, the family happens to be the CEO, and presently calls ALL the shots! Guys like Helton, Darby, etc., say nothing, do nothing without King Brain Farces blessing and in fact DIRECTION!

So firing, or whatever, the lower rung of management, will do nothing to change the culture of the entire NA$CRAP organization.

Pass the bottle please!

Keith
11/17/2009 06:35 PM
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Jeff would have 5 Championships and Jimmie would have 2 if you look at the year he beat Jimmie by the old points Jimmie had a huge lead in late August and he ran expermental engines and had 2 blow up which allowed Jeff to catch up without the Chase Jimmie would not have done that. The other thought it is a good thing he did not talk Rick into hiring Tony Stewart he would really be getting pounded.

Keith
11/17/2009 06:40 PM
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Hey 24-4-5 you better hope Mark files for Social Security because he will win 1 before Jeff wins number 5 and forget Jimmie he will have 10 before Jeff gets number 5.

DoninAjax
11/17/2009 11:14 PM
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Gordon82Wins

If Jr. had those stats in 07, the chase would have been gone retroactive to 06 and Jr. would have his championship.

And Bobby has one more win than DW. He finally got credit for his win in a MUSTANG on August 6,1971 at Bowman Gray Stadium. It is causing DW no end of aggravation.

24-4-5
11/18/2009 10:19 AM
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Keith, sorry dude, can’t agree with you. OK, maybe MM will get his first before JG gets his official 5th, but I have faith in my driver. Look where he’s at in the standings. You don’t get that far by not being able to race a car. He’ll have his time, again, and I’ll be the first to say “I told ya so” :-) Have a great week everyone and let’s hope the last race of the season leaves us wanting more next year .. cuz honestly, this year wasn’t all that great.

kathryn tarver
11/21/2009 11:30 AM
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he still has a few good years left!! if he ever quits driving that will be the end of nascar for me unless he starts his own team, which i would love to see!! but i still want him drive until at least 50!! And he needs to think about a new crew chief.
I hate the new chase since day one!!

Contact Danny Peters