The Frontstretch: Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's Elder Statesman? by Thomas Bowles -- Monday April 6, 2009

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Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's Elder Statesman?

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday April 6, 2009

 

It’s been 12 years since Jeff Gordon made his first start at Texas Motor Speedway in the Spring of 1997. I was only 16… but I remember every bit of it. Gordon was nearing the peak of his career then, leading 69 laps in the speedway’s Cup debut. Comfortably in the top 5, 25-year-old Gordon remained in contention until contact between Ernie Irvan and Greg Sacks made him an innocent victim of a wreck not of his making. The No. 24 car slammed into both cars in front of him, destroying the front end of his DuPont Chevrolet and turning his day into a pile of mush.

The crowd cheered.

Fast forward to 2009. Sixteen starts and several ugly DNFs later, Gordon finally took a Texas-sized monkey and threw it off his back, charging from third to first on his final pit stop and holding off now three-time championship teammate Jimmie Johnson for his first career victory at the track. In the process, Gordon ended a 47-race winless streak – but cemented his hold atop the Sprint Cup standings in what’s become a 162-point runaway after just six events.

The crowd cheered.

That alone should give a clear indication of how perception of Jeff Gordon has changed these last few seasons. Of course, Gordon himself doesn’t want to believe it; he laughed at a question in his post-race press conference that suggested fans of other drivers had actually started rooting for him to end his drought.

“I can’t say I ever saw that,” he said with a grin.

But the rest of us did.

With his victory Sunday, Gordon continues to put the finishing touches on what will be one of the most decorated stock car careers of all time. With his win at Texas, there’s just one track left on the current schedule where Gordon remains shut out of Victory Lane (Homestead) – it’s one of several marks he’s set that will take years to be broken in NASCAR’s modern era. With just three more victories — a mark likely attainable this season — he’ll move to third on the all-time list behind only David Pearson and Richard Petty, both certain to be first-ballot Hall of Famers when the sport ushers in its national museum in 2010. Without question, Gordon will one day join them in Charlotte; he’s the most successful driver of the late 1990s, and the arguments will carry on long into the night as to whether he’s the most successful of the modern era altogether.

Jeff Gordon was all smiles after finally adding his name to the list of drivers who’ve won a Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Despite all these records, though, the booing continued to follow Jeff Gordon wherever he went up and through the past few years. Losing races and championships to new teammate Jimmie Johnson? The fans just jeered them both. Passing Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on the all-time victory list? They greeted him by throwing beer cans while celebrating. And losing two championships under the Chase he’d have coasted to under the old system? They were met by complete indifference from fans who spent years wasting their breath on hoping he’d blow an engine.

“When somebody dominates, you want to see them get beaten,” Gordon theorized without a hint of frustration about that shaky past Sunday night. “And when somebody is a winner, or are good at what they do, you want to see them struggle a little bit — but you also like to see them do good when they struggle. I don’t think that’s been any different in our case.”

“I’m sure there’s probably some people out there that maybe weren’t big Jeff Gordon fans that saw us struggle enough and said, hey, it would be good to see them win — but I also know there’s some that are just loving it that we were never winning.”

Yet sometime over these last 47 races, the fans upset over Gordon’s lack of success have far outshined a shrinking minority of those who relished it. Indeed, without anyone ever realizing what was happening Gordon’s transition to beloved elder statesman of the sport has come to pass. This transition is nothing new; notables such as Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt experienced the same thing late in their careers. In Waltrip’s case, it was being spun out by Rusty Wallace in 1989’s The Winston that turned him from villain to victim; for Earnhardt, it was his win in the 1998 Daytona 500 which proved that the man of steel was also the most well-respected man in the Cup Series garage.

Which event turned the tide of public opinion for Gordon? I don’t think it’s one particular moment so much as a handful of on and off-track events. For the first time during this drought, Gordon became a father, sharing his love for his daughter Ella and wife Ingrid publicly more often than not. He was painfully the bridesmaid but never the bride, finishing second in the ’07 title Chase to Johnson and then finishing runner-up four times in Cup races over the past year-and-a-half. And through it all, fans began to realize that at 37, “beginning of the end” could be a phrase much closer to reality than anyone might have ever expected.

“Never looked at it that way,” said Gordon when questioned about his slump – and how one too many critics predicted his career’s imminent demise. “The media and I have a fantastic relationship, have for many years. And it’s because I have respect for their job. They have to tell a story with as much facts as they have presented to them — and the facts were the facts.”

“We just… we had opportunities. We didn’t win, sometimes it was my fault. Sometimes there were other circumstances. It’s our job as a team to come together and prove that wrong for ourselves, not for anybody else.”

But in the process of doing it, don’t believe for a second Gordon’s own racing mortality failed to cross his mind, a fact not lost on the millions of fans who follow this sport religiously on a weekly basis. And as his jovial session with reporters continued well into the night at Texas Motor Speedway, a few of those innermost fears we already knew actually began to creep out.

“It made you question how bad do you really want it,” he said of the past 18 months. “How hard are you willing to work to get back to Victory Lane, and how hard are you willing to drive, what’s your physical condition, where are you at mentally? I realized through last year that I didn’t want to just be somebody out there riding around. I didn’t want to be somebody that never won again. And I don’t know how many more years I do have left.”

Somewhere along that line of thinking, Gordon became more determined. He increased his offseason workout regimen, restricted at-the-track visiting of his wife and daughter to Sundays and held several offseason chats with crew chief Steve Letarte about what he could do as a driver to make things better. And as Gordon entered 2009 with a renewed sense of focus, the fans entered the year with a sense of nostalgia – looking to see if, indeed, the end was close at hand.

It wasn’t.

“I could give this team 100 percent of my focus as well as any time they need to test or do anything that I’m there 100 percent,” Gordon explained of his recent change in attitude. “I wanted to make sure there were no excuses, just like Steve says — no excuses. And so I’m giving these guys everything that I’ve got and we’re just we’re doing things a little different, and it’s all paying off.”

In the process, Gordon’s become a visible force of positive energy in a series desperate for someone to carry it on its mantle and save it from short-term decline. And as Gordon adjusts to wearing that title of beloved elder statesman, he’ll realize it also comes with a greater sense of power. Comments that are made carry more weight, with both your successful history and the excitement of the fan base now standing behind them. Only time will tell whether Gordon will use his newfound popularity late in the game – combined with his presence on top of the sport – to push for changes in a new car that’s constantly fallen under criticism from all aspects of the garage. Or for a point system and a style of racing that’s become more bland in recent years.

But today wasn’t exactly the day to bring about change … today was a day to simply recognize that change had finally come for a man that once spent years being NASCAR’s No. 1 public enemy. Instead, there’s now a chance to allow a veteran of 16+ years to remember what it’s like to be young all over again.

“It was the coolest,” Gordon said of his first trip to Victory Lane at Texas. “I’m telling you, it’s like winning for the very first time. All those emotions and excitement … I did a heck of a good burnout, I thought. So I was proud of that. And I did it so good I blew the rear tires off the car, at least one of them, on the back straightaway. I didn’t want those fans back there to miss out on the burnout.”

And now that most fans have come around on both Gordon and his 16-year career, they’ll get a chance to appreciate a lifetime of accomplishments just before it would have been too late.

Contact Tom Bowles

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Michael
04/06/2009 06:20 AM
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Tom , its clear that you worship Gordon , not really news to anyone that reads your columns , but you sure are stretching the truth to get all of us to join you .
I didn’t hear any difference whatsoever in the fan reaction to Gordons’ win . He has some very vocal supporters , and some very vocal detractors . Both were present on Sunday .
I remenber the incident in the 1997 Texas race , and my view was that Gordon picked the wrong lane and drove into the crash .
Now as to Gordons idea that people hate him because he won too many races , Richard Petty has won far more races , so has David Pearson , and neither of them was hated for it . No , there are other reasons for the animosity shown to Gordon .
You did succeed in giving us a good laugh with the “ elder statesman “ label . What exactly would the bestowing of that distinction on Gordon be based on ? Age ? Longevity in the sport ? He loses on both counts . His carreer ? Not a very good argument there either . Both Johnson and Stewart have far more impressive career stats , they’ve won numerous championships in many different forms of racing . Other drivers look to him as a leader ? No , that would be Jeff Burton .
And though i realize that cheating on his first wife didn’t make him unique , i don’t think his second marriage automatically erases that fact . And many drivers worked very hard over the winter to improve their performance . In fact i doubt any driver had to work harder than Stewart over the winter . And you might be shocked to hear this , but many NASCAR competitors ( drivers , crew members , officials ) have become fathers and mothers . So i’m afraid i don’t see the sainthood there either .

Bill B
04/06/2009 07:44 AM
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Great article Tom and a lot of good points. You only get booed when you are good enough to be noticed otherwise no one would waster their time.

“I’m sure there’s probably some people out there that maybe weren’t big Jeff Gordon fans that saw us struggle enough and said, hey, it would be good to see them win — but I also know there’s some that are just loving it that we were never winning.”

Michael, I take it you are part of the latter group. You sound like a real pleasure.

Woody
04/06/2009 07:46 AM
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Great job to one of the most talented drivers in Nascar history.

Personal life doesn’t enter into the picture with most us.

He lost one of the best crew chiefs in nascar history, had to regroup with new crew chief and team for 3 years. Then the focus was on the #48 to win a cup. So he gave up a lot.

He owes fat boy Stewart about 7 put in the wall hopefully.

Good job Gordon.

Brent
04/06/2009 09:36 AM
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Well Michael, I guess you are one of those that hate Gordon no matter what. More impressive career than Gordon’s? lol that is ridiculous, maybe in the future Johnson will, but not yet. Cheating on his first wife? apparently you know more than anyone else. Plus it’s not like Gordon got screwed in that divorce?? oh wait! I’m actually glad to hear Gordon haters again. It’s a good sign that Gordon is winning again!

Johnboy60
04/06/2009 09:51 AM
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Woody, I am a fan of neither jeffyboy or tony, however you are in dreamland if you think that jeff would want to ever go head to head with tony!! tony will whip him like a red
-headed stepchild on the track or behind the hauler!!

Casey B
04/06/2009 09:55 AM
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Michael, I’m not exactly sure what you are on, and although you are entitled to your opinion, which is why people sometimes make fools of themselves, you couldn’t be farther from the truth when talking about career success when comparing Gordon to Johnson and Stewart. Alright I halfway get the Johnson arguement in terms of his success as of late, but Stewart? Are you joking? Comparing the number of starts with the number of wins each driver has its not even close with Stewart and Gordon. And Johnson does hold an ever so slight edge over Gordon in winning percentage but he also hoped into top notch equipment from the first time he drove in the Cup series, while Gordon played a key role in making Hendrick into what it is today. I’m not saying that Gordon wasn’t in top notch equipment, I think it’s just worth mentioning that because of Gordon’s success it has helped to improve Hendrick motorsports all the way up to the time Jimmy joined the team. Jimmy also needs to double his own win total to reach Gordon’s. Then you can talk number of cup championships, and both Stewart and Johnson fall short. There may be a day that Johnson passes Gordon but it hasn’t happened yet, so to say that they have enjoyed more career success up to this point is just absurd, it just sounds to me like Jeff has hurt your feelings to many times so you try to get back at him with your keyboard.
And as far as other drivers looking to Jeff Burton as a leader? Of what? Underachieving? Don’t get me wrong Burton is a hell of a guy and a decent driver who races guys clean, but what has he done to merit him as a leader of anything, besides being a nice guy? And I’m sorry I’m not trying to bash on Burton, cause I do respect the guy, just the notion of him being looked to as “the leader” is crazy. The leader the drivers look up to would be someone who has enjoyed enormous career success, and looked at as one of the biggest ambassadors of the sport, and that my friend would be Gordon, who Bowles correctly pointed out.

Kahne Fan
04/06/2009 10:36 AM
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i’ve been an avid fan since 1990…always a bill elliott fan, and now kasey kahne. i never liked gordon, actually, i couldn’t stand to see him run well. i’m not sure what it was, but i actually found myself watching the race sunday thinking ‘c’mon jeff, win this one!’

Bobb
04/06/2009 12:29 PM
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Other than Jimmie Johnson, nobody has figured out how to dominate the last ten races of the year to capture the championship.

Jeff Gordon is putting together a heck of a “first ten races” and if it was still the old championship format, a lot of teams might be feeling beat already.

Fours guys, Bobby Labonte, Gordon, Stewart and Kenseth have a chance to be champions under the old and new championship formats. If Gordon does it, the achievement will mean something more than a fifth championship.

Managing Editor
04/06/2009 01:01 PM
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Please remember that comments that exclusively bash another poster — without anything else to say — will be removed.

Hope to see the discussion keep going while keeping the insults to a minimum.

Maria
04/06/2009 04:07 PM
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Awesome job Jeff. You are one of the most amazing drivers in history. Facts prove that! I see the little haters are out. Cool!! Nothing I like better, then watching Gordon haters cry like that! Makes the win a million times better knowing it pisses them off when he does!

Marc
04/06/2009 10:57 PM
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I am another of those who never liked Jeff. And the reason is that he came along and took the advantage over an aging Dale Earnhardt. He won Dale’s 8th championship by 34 points. But now, Dale is gone, but never forgotten. One day, JEff will be gone, too. He has earned the privilege of being elder statesman of NASCAR. It surely isn’t one of the Busch brothers. Good luck, Jeff.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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