The Frontstretch: Out With The Old, In With The New, Wondering What Might Have Been by Thomas Bowles -- Monday November 12, 2007

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Out With The Old, In With The New, Wondering What Might Have Been

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday November 12, 2007

 

Since 1993, Jeff Gordon has won more races than any other driver in Cup. Four series titles, three Daytona 500s, and eighty-one victories dot the landscape of a career marked by stats putting him at or near the top of any category created in the modern era.

You'd think all that number-crunching would have taught the man how to end a season. But in a playoff where sprinting to the finish line has become a necessity, a longtime weakness of Gordon's has been revealed once again; and because of it, the only trophy he'll win come Homestead is one labeled NASCAR's Biggest Victim Of Changing The Rules.

I'm guessing that's not the consolation prize this man's looking for.

Barring a miracle, Gordon will indeed spend the rest of his offseason wondering what might have been, his fifth Cup title slipping away at the hands of a teammate's triumphant trek towards greatness. As the confetti rained down in the Winner's Circle at Phoenix, it was Jimmie Johnson's No. 48, not the No. 24, enjoying the spoils of victory while snagging his fourth straight win in Nextel Cup. As the fervor surrounding Johnson's domination reached fever pitch, theories flowed fast and furious about how this fabulous finish led to a season quickly registered as one of the best individual performances in NASCAR history.

"I think we’ve got a little magic right now," beamed Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, caught up in the confidence of a man feeling he could do no wrong. "If somebody could bottle it up and sell it, it would go for millions."

That number could have also referred to the number of people who thought double-digit victories were impossible in this day and age; but after Sunday, there sat Johnson with a total of ten, the first time such a feat's been accomplished since a certain teammate did it back in 1998.

It was that year, of course, where Gordon was busy establishing the height of his legacy; winning 13 races, including four in a row, the driver cakewalked to what would be his third Cup title of the decade – and his second in a row. While rival Dale Earnhardt, Sr. won the Daytona 500 that February, by November he was four years removed from a dominating title run of his own, leaving no doubt as to which man had taken charge at the pinnacle of the sport.

Gordon was in his sixth full season back then – the exact same time at which Johnson has chosen to explode with his own career gem. Ten wins, four in a row, and just one race upcoming from back-to-back titles leave the Californian running away with the torch of greatness Gordon once held.

Jimmie Johnson outdueled Jeff Gordon on the track Sunday, taking not just a victory away but perhaps the torch of which man is the leading driver at Hendrick Motorsports.

The irony of history seems more palpable than ever. Problem is, under the old system before it - the one in which 29 previous Winston Cup champions were crowned - the pupil would have conceded to the teacher a long time ago.

In fact, Gordon's lead of 344 points this year would have been one of the bigger championship margins in recent memory, with his record-tying 29 Top 10 finishes the catalyst for a parade of consistency that far outshined his competition. If change were an afterthought, not a way of life around stock car racing this decade, the man on the verge of surrender would instead be surrendering – to the thoughts of being just one behind the mythical seven titles of both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

However, as I wrote in my article last week, those old standings are no longer the rules by which the race is run; and as changes descended upon the sport, Gordon's showcased the sole Achilles' Heel which threatened to bite him many a time before: failing to finish a season strong.

Yes, '98 was a special year for Gordon in more ways than one; it was also the only time he's finished off a season with any sort of momentum, winning three times in four races to put the punctuation point on a season unlike any other. The other three titles weren't so spectacular, won with a motto of hanging on rather than pulling the knockout punch. In fact, Gordon's win total in the final four races of any season stands at one when you pull '98 out of the magical equation. It's a rear view mirror reality that made the final standings look closer than they appear; and in fact, such collapses had already cost Gordon a title in '96, when a late-season surge by then-teammate Terry Labonte took precedence over a much better season by the DuPont Chevrolet.

And now, it's happening all over again.

"Well, heck, unless you’re going to lead the most laps and win the race, you’re not going to make up any ground on those guys," said Gordon, all but admitting defeat after undergoing a Herculean effort just to come home 10th. "I mean, they’re doing an awesome job, and we just haven’t been able to get the job done the way we need to."

"They’re doing the job to win the championship, and we haven’t."

In doing so, they've also stolen the label of best from the man who defined that term for well over a decade in Cup. But oh, how fine that line can be between record-setting glory and heart-breaking failure.

Now, Gordon knows a little of both, the pain inflicted by the hands of the man he hired.

“He’s (Johnson's) wracked up incredible numbers since he’s been in the series," said Gordon of his teammate. "To me, it’s always a combination of a great driver and a great team. When you get those two ingredients, and sometimes it seems like it’s easy to find, but trust me, it’s not."

"When you find that, man, I tell you what, you just think that this stuff is easy. And they’re (Johnson and company) making it look real easy.”

What's not so easy is the pill that Gordon's forced to swallow once again. For the second time in four years, a certain title under the old format has likely swung the other way, leaving him by far the biggest loser in the rearranged matchup designed to increase competition throughout the playoffs.

“I guess I’ve got to change," said Gordon, desperate to figure out the way to push over a Chase hump that appears insurmountable. "We’ve got to figure out how to go faster, I know that, because what I’m doing now ain’t getting it done.”

"It’s just not meant to be for us this year.”

And the next, and the next, and the next, until Gordon can find that extra special moment of '98 all over again.

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elena
11/12/2007 06:01 AM
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I think that a better way of comparing is when you do it head to head. No one has matched Jimmie since he came to Cup. I mean many say what a great driver Tony is, and yet in head to head competition in the last six years, Jimmie has 33 wins to Tony’s 20. Jeff has come the closest. The press has never given Jimmie its dues, rather talking about Tony, and Kyle, and Denny. All the time ignoring the quiet excellence of Jimmie. When talking about Kyle moving to Gibbs, the press just couldn’t stop with the acolades. Well, Kyle has 4 wins in 3 years. Jimmie had 14 in 3 years. Maybe now Jimmie will get some respect.

HOLLY
11/12/2007 08:51 AM
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Stop talking about the Hendrick drivers so much they are not the best in NASCAR.

elena
11/12/2007 09:12 AM
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Hendricks cars ARE THE BEST! They have won more than 1/2 of all races, have the most top 5s, have the most top 10s, have the highest % of wins, have the best average start, have the best average finish. Have I left anything out?

elena
11/12/2007 09:39 AM
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I forgot, HMS drivers have led the most laps.

Chris
11/12/2007 09:47 AM
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I think that this season is what best illustrates what is wrong with the chase, and why it will never work no matter how they try to adjust it. This is motorsports, and unless they begin a 43 race season with 43 full time teams and eliminate the team finishing dead last from competition every race then any form of playoff system just won’t work. It’s not that kind of sport. All the chase does is negate any kind of a lead a team has worked hard to build all season and allow a team who probably wouldn’t have won the Championship to come in and win it based soly on the results of the final ten races, and not on the total performance throughout the entire season.

Margo L
11/12/2007 10:13 AM
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We might want to define our parameters before we try to decide who the best driver is . But lets take Gordon as an example .
First , best at what . NASCAR wins ? No , that goes to Petty . You can carve stock car racing history up into “ eras “ to make any point you like , But Petty won 200 . So that comparison won’t work . Championships ? Petty and Earnhardt win there too .
But the term best driver would logically have to be about far more than just stock car racing . The “ best driver “ designation would have to include results from all types of race driving in different types of race cars , on different types of race tracks . There , Gordon falls off a bit . Compare the record of the man who probably is the greatest driver of all time . A J Foyt won 24 Hours of LeMans , 12 Hours of Sebring , 24 Hours of Daytona , Atlanta 500 , Daytona 500 , Indy 500 ( 4 times ) Indy car championship ( 7 times ) USAC stock car championship , USAC midget championship , IROC winner , and a number of world land speed records . Obviously Mario Andretti would also be a contender . Formula One champion , winner at Sebring , Daytona 500 , Indy car champion , IROC winner , winner in sprint cars and midgets . What about Dan Gurney who won in Formula One ( in a car of his own design ) NASCAR , USAC indy cars ,and the 24 Hours of LeMans.
Tony Stewart would also have to be mentioned . Along with JJ Yeley , the only driver to ever win the USAC Triple Crown , Nascar Championship , Indy Car Championship , ARCA win , one of the very few drivers to have won Cup , Busch , and Truck races and IROC winner .
And if we’re only going to concentrate on a single series record , then we would have to consider the incredible Juan Manuel Fangio , Michael Schumacher , John Force ( whose victories and championships far exceed anything Gordon has done ) ,the great Steve Kinser , whose record matches Force , and Rich Vogler . And there are many more , going back to the very beginning of auto racing .
I personally don’t think Gordons’ accomplishments are even the best in NASCAR , and they certainly pale in comparison to the drivers who are “ the best “ .

Paul
11/12/2007 11:13 AM
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Elena , Although not a fan, his name is Hendrick.

Michael
11/12/2007 12:19 PM
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Gordon was not leading in the championship points when the Chase started because there was no championship UNTIL the Chase started . The points leading up to the Chase were just that . Points to qualify 12 cars for the Chase . The wailing over the old points system is silly because the old points system is the only one we’ve had all year . And for those who have a need to invent ways for Gordon to win a championship or two without actually winning them , you don’t have to stop with the “ classic points “ . Try the original points system from 1949 . You might be able to twist that around to give the results you need . Or any of the numerous points systems since then . There have been many . Gordon will have 7 championships when he earns them on the track . This year he has simply been outdriven by his team mate .

Disapointed
11/12/2007 02:31 PM
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With the way N.A.S.C.A.R is shuffling the formats so often Jr. will have a better chance at winning 8 cup titles before Gordon and that’s just what it will take to preserve N.A.S.C.A.R’s popularity.Politics… politics…politics!

Dan O'Keefe
11/12/2007 03:01 PM
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professional sports and the athletes who play them are based on one and only one priorty- MONEY- therefore i make sure i don’t feed into their quest, and so should you…

Disapointed
11/12/2007 03:06 PM
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No, Dan O’keefe what I should do is call em like I see em, and I see a sport catering to itself instead of the whole that supports it!

We're Skwoooed
11/12/2007 06:53 PM
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Couldn’t agree with you more,“Disappointed”.
NA$CAR is its own worst emeny and the backlash is starting to show !!

Kay Lender
11/13/2007 04:49 PM
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Only way Johnson wins is by Knaus getting all his information from Steve But Knaus sure doesn’t share very sneaky person he is. Oh well Jeff is the champion after 26 races Jimmy didn’t stand a chance. Jeff is still ahead of him in points so Jimmy is still in the backseat as far as I’m concerned.

Racing Logic
11/15/2007 08:32 PM
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As Kyle Petty has stated many times on SPEED’s “Tradin’ Paint”, it is almost impossible to compare drivers from different eras. It is becoming just as hard to compare the NASCAR drivers of the modern era as we see changes made with the inception of “The Chase” and the changes that Brian France and Mike Helton are making to the sport. If you were to compare the first year of the chase to the present year, there have been changes made by those previously mentioned that would have changed the outcome of that first chase. The introduction of the COT this year makes a comparison of this Chase to that of previou years invalid. I don’t care which driver you are, or how talented you are. Next year, the driver whose team does not have a good handle on the COT will not win the Chase. Is it really fair to measure a current driver’s performance while adjusting to a new car or bouncing between two different cars to a year in another driver’s career where they did not have to do the same? Listen to Greg Biffle talk about Rousch dominance of the past because the figured out coil binding first! Biffle isn’t a poor driver. He just knows that you win when your organization figures out something in the engineering area before others.

 

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