Since 1993, Jeff Gordon has won more races than any other driver in Cup. Four series titles, three Daytona 500s and 81 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 10, 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. 10 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.
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 Earnhardt.
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 rearview 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] racked 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.