You know you’re on a roll when, seven races into the season, you hold a points lead so large that you could finish dead last the next week and still leave town with it. That’s exactly where Jeff Gordon found himself last week, rolling into Phoenix with just such a lead. In the eight races so far including the Subway Fresh 500, Gordon has five top-five finishes, including a win at Texas, the track that has been his nemesis for so long. If that’s what he does at the tracks he’s not good at, the competition must quake to think what he’ll do where he’s good.
At this juncture, the veteran that his racing friends call “Four-Time” for his four Sprint Cup championships (though purists will note that Gordon’s trophies came under the Winston sponsorship which means… Gordon’s trophies are really ugly. Great sponsor; really ugly trophy.) looks like he’s a solid contender to make that nickname “Five-Time” in November. His finishes so far include just one run lower than 13th, a 25th at Phoenix. In addition to the Texas win, Gordon has a pair of runner-up finishes and two fourths. He looks like a contender – confident, with cars that seem to never miss a beat and a crew that always pulls off near-perfect stops. He’s already putting himself into a good position to make and begin the Chase come September.
The problem is that while Gordon is putting together these numbers now, the driver who will likely be his stiffest competition for the Cup routinely puts them up in the Chase. And to add insult to injury, Gordon owns him.
Well, his racecars, anyway. In 2001, when the first rumbles of Ray Evernham’s defection began, Rick Hendrick wanted to make sure his then three-time championship driver didn’t defect to the future Evernham Motorsports, so he offered Gordon a sweet deal – a lifetime contract to drive the No. 24 as long as he wishes, and part ownership of a brand new fourth Hendrick Motorsports team – the No. 48, 24 times two. Gordon was en route to title number four in 2001, but his driver search was on.
Smart money would have been on then-Busch Series veterans Jason Keller or his teammate Jeff Green, the 2000 series champion by a landslide. Green signed with Richard Childress racing for 2002, leaving Keller, a perpetual favorite for championships in NASCAR’s second series in those days. Keller racked up a win, 14 top fives and 22 top 10s in the 33-race season to finish third in points behind Kevin Harvick and Green.
But Keller’s phone never rang. Instead, Gordon chose a younger driver whose numbers that year were far less impressive – he had a win, but only four top fives and nine top 10s – good for eighth in points, but nothing earth-shattering. Sure, Gordon upped the ante, giving the upstart team his own cars, but nobody really expected instant success – not only were the driver’s numbers lackluster, but the crew chief was relatively raw himself, a member of Gordon’s famed Rainbow Warriors in the 1990s but a fairly inexperienced crew chief at the Cup level. One whose claim to fame was that he had jumped into his Melling Racing racecar during a test to see if he could feel what driver Stacy Compton was feeling – and promptly stuffed the car in the wall at the Milwaukee Mile. But Gordon had faith in his choices, and to his credit stuck to his guns when pitching them to new sponsor Lowe’s among the obvious doubts.
You have to wonder if he’s ever privately kicked himself for his choice.
Something like, “I could have hired Tony Raines, but NO! I had to hire that guy.”
“That guy” is, of course, three-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is already looking like Gordon’s strongest competition. He is the monster that Gordon created, and the one Gordon must slay.
Still, even later in his storied Cup career, Gordon is arguably the best driver to sit behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup stock car every Sunday. There is little argument at all that he is one of the best of all time – had time stood still just a little longer instead of ushering in “progress” and the Chase, Gordon might be looking to join the all-time greats of the sport with his seventh title instead of his fifth. (Though if you want to look at it from another angle, Gordon has seven titles, including his three as Johnson’s owner of record.) It would have been appropriate, in a way, because the two seven-time champions were the best of their eras, as Gordon was in the years after Dale Earnhardt’s prime and before Johnson’s. There’s little argument that Johnson is the best right now, and if he continues at the torrid pace that has, since 2002, produced top-five points finishes every year of his career, he could certainly have seven Cup championships of his own.
For Gordon, that’s now a stretch. At 37, time is becoming an enemy to be reckoned with. The new car threw Gordon a curve that many younger drivers figured out far sooner. The grey at Gordon’s temples, in a way still a surprise on the driver once called “Wonder Boy,” is a reminder that no driver has forever.
But this looks like it could be Gordon’s year. He’s good everywhere the series heads in the next couple of months – he’s strong at Talladega, poetry in motion at Darlington, a past winner at all of the tracks he will race in May and June. He’s always there this year. A threat. Breathing down the competition’s neck and relishing the fear that instills.
The only problem is the monster Gordon created has shown not an iota of fear in the years since Gordon drew the ridicule of so many for even hiring him in the first place. And while numbers are meaningless now, in the Chase they will be everything. Gordon’s are good, but Johnson’s are great. The story of these two could have been a movie script. Only this time, the end is unwritten. Gordon’s name is likely to be on a champion’s trophy in December – and he wants it to be the driver’s trophy this time. Gordon is hungry, and if he can slay his own monster he will have a feast like no other. But the monster will not go gently and will not back down.
It ought to be a hell of a fight.