NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Jeff Gordon a Legend Amongst Us

Jeff Gordon’s win at Texas Motor Speedway was, without question, a long anticipated victory for the four-time NASCAR champion. The career wins leader amongst active drivers had not visited victory lane in the prior 47 non-exhibition races dating back to October of 2007. The winless streak was not in keeping with Gordon’s prolific career statistics that have had him on pace in several years to eclipse the win totals of NASCAR greats Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.

With the Samsung 500 victory at Texas, Gordon has now posted 82 career Cup Series wins. By comparison, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, his closest rival in the career win category of drivers competing full-time in NASCAR’s top series, has exactly half or 41 victories to his credit. Even though Johnson has performed at a prolific pace during his relatively short 262 starts at the Cup level – having yet to experience a significant and seemingly unavoidable win-drought in his career – he does not enjoy any significant win percentage advantage over Gordon. With 16-years and 554 starts in NASCAR Cup competition under his belt, Gordon has a winning percentage of 14.86%, a sum just under Johnson’s winning rate of 15.65% amassed since he began campaigning in the Cup circuit full-time in 2002.

Simply put, and Gordon’s recently ended wins slump aside; Gordon has been a big winner for a lot of years. With the exception of 2005 (11th) Gordon has never been out of the top 10 in driver points at year’s end since 1993, his freshman year, with a finish of 14th – and then a performance good enough to win Rookie of the Year honors.

Of course, all this is history, and not too ancient history at that. Gordon has won a lot of races and championships. Longtime and not so longtime fans of the sport are well aware that the California native has had a tremendous amount of success behind the wheel of his HMS Dupont Chevrolet. However, how many truly comprehended and appreciated the historical significance of that success is difficult to estimate.

Gordon’s winning ways is the kind of stuff that legends are made of. Legends such as Yarborough, a three-time Cup champion with 83 career wins, a win total that Gordon will equal with his next victory. Next on the list will be Allison and Waltrip, two giants of the sport from yesteryear who are tied for third on the all-time career wins list with 84 wins apiece. Just three more victories for Gordon, the current Sprint Cup Series points leader and he will take sole position of third place on the prestigious list behind Richard “the King” Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105 wins).

Five easy to identify legends of stock car racing: Yarborough, Allison, Waltrip, Pearson and Petty. Oh yeah, and Gordon. Perhaps there are others amongst the crop of current day racers that may one day crack the top five on the NASCAR Cup all-time wins list. If there is such a driver, he has far too many victories still to record even deserve serious consideration today.

Perhaps though NASCAR loyalists are starting to get it. The “it” being that Gordon is special. There seemed to be a genuine and widespread happiness as he celebrated his victory in an uncanny fashion for the normally more subdued Gordon by performing burnouts for the generally appreciative fans. In many cases, the same fans that in the not-so-distant past would have been jeering Gordon for yet another trip to victory lane.

Hopefully, Gordon is beginning to be recognized for what he is and has been to the sport. It seems that time may have softened some of the unfounded disapproval of him by fans that has haunted him through most of his career. Whatever the reason, the undeserved chorus of boos seems to have subsided significantly or so it would seem if his reception at Texas Motor Speedway following his triumph was any indication.

It certainly is not mandatory that fans of any sport root for the best a sport has to offer. In fact, it would be very boring were everyone to cheer for the same team or athlete. The Yankees have built dynasties, but certainly a Red Sox fan has every right to exist and for that matter hope that “his or her” team would be victorious over a legendary Yankee team. It is not necessary to be a fan of Tiger Woods to recognize and respect his accomplishments.

In the case of Gordon, just like any sports figure or entity it is perfectly understandable that individual race fans have their own reasons for rooting for one driver over another. However, as in the case of the Yankees or Tiger Woods, the fan that fails to recognize that that Gordon is the modern era standard-bearer of what a legendary NASCAR driver is.

When Gordon ties and then surpasses Yarborough, Allison and Waltrip the events should be looked on with an appreciation of his great milestones and gratitude that we were able to witness such an outstanding athlete and his historic accomplishments. His record will be part of racing lure for decades to come. And for that he’ll deserve respect from the racing community.

Who knows, this coming Saturday night race under the lights at Phoenix International Raceway may provide Gordon with his 83rd victory – a win that would tie him for fourth on the career wins list. Phoenix, coincidently, is where Gordon scored win No. 76, a win that equaled the late Dale Earnhardt’s career total. Following the win Gordon flew a No. 3 flag in what Dale Earnhardt Jr. called a classy tribute, only to be pelted with beer cans and other such debris by irate fans apparently unappreciative of what Gordon had just achieved.

It certainly would not be a shock for Gordon, who besides the aforementioned win two years ago at Phoenix also has eight top fives and 15 top 10s, to win and tie Yarborough. Next up would be Talladega, where in 2007 Gordon backed up his Phoenix win by winning at the superspeedway on consecutive weekends, surpassing Earnhardt’s total – a win that was met by an even more tasteless and demonstrative protest of Gordon’s success.

The Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry ran deep and was emotional. Fans of Earnhardt Nation failed to enjoy and appreciate what was a historic moment. Unfortunately and unfairly, Gordon probably was never properly recognized for his historic accomplishment either. Surpassing Earnhardt was a lifetime achievement that should have been more widely appreciated.

That Jeff Gordon is going to surpass the win totals of Yarborough, Allison and Waltrip is almost a certainty. The all-time wins list will then read Petty, Pearson and Gordon.

Now, that is something. And we have the privilege of watching this history unfold in our time in history.

Enjoy it!

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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