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2009 Season Review: Jeff Gordon

2009 Ride: No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy
2009 Primary Sponsors: DuPont, National Guard (8 races), Pepsi (2 races), Transformers (1 race)
2009 Owners: Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon
2009 Crew Chief: Steve Letarte

Stats: 36 starts, 1 win, 16 top fives, 25 top 10s, 1 DNF, 3rd in points
Best Finish: 1st, Texas (April)
Average Finish: 10.2

High Point: Undoubtedly, most people will decide Jeff Gordon’s spring win at Texas Motor Speedway will be marked as the highlight of his 2009 season. However, when you take a step back and review the year as a whole, it’s actually his alarmingly consistent performance that should be underlined in the history books. It can be easy to forget about the runner-up, but not in this case, as Gordon tied Darrell Waltrip for the most second-place results in a season with eight. Add Jeff’s single victory, and you have nine out of 36 races (25%) completed in the top two. Combine that impressive stat with the Hendrick 1-2-3 points coup for 2009, and you have a team with every reason to celebrate their entire body of work.

Low Point: Nothing could have been more damaging to Gordon’s mental and physical health than a devastating crash at Watkins Glen. Just weeks after Gordon underwent an injection to help ease the chronic pain in his back, on lap 61 at the Glen, Sam Hornish Jr. slammed into the tire barrier in the carousel turn. His No. 77 was thrown back into oncoming traffic, its driver helpless at the controls of an already wounded Dodge. Unable to avoid the disaster in front of him, Gordon’s No. 24 smashed head-on into Hornish, destroying both cars in a shower of debris that forced a red flag for cleanup. Luckily, both men walked away unscathed; but after dodging a season’s worth of questions regarding his ever-present back problems, Gordon just didn’t need the violent wreck to throw a wrench into the healing process. Ironically, even as he admitted that the accident set his back two steps back, once Gordon posted a second-place finish at Michigan the following week the question of his back affecting his ability to race vanished – hidden beneath the more interesting headlines of the season.

Summary: There comes a time in every champion’s career when he is no longer posting record breaking finishes week in and week out. The past two seasons have been such a time for Gordon, with only a single win added to his career total of 82. However, just because he has fewer trips to victory lane these days doesn’t mean he’s become uncompetitive in the Sprint Cup garage.

In fact, after the third race into the 2009 season (Las Vegas), Gordon topped the points standings. He remained there, strengthening the momentum with the Texas win, until the April Talladega race, where his incredibly strong start to the year suffered a setback with a lap 7 wreck. However, the Plate Monster did little to dent Gordon’s consistency, as back-to-back top 10s at Richmond and Darlington returned him to the top of the chart. After a stellar start continued through Memorial Day, it took a 26th-place stumble at Dover for the points lead to finally slip through his grasp. After that, it was “teammate” Tony Stewart who heated up, leaving Gordon continuing to add to his top-five stats but unable to regain the championship lead the rest of the season. In fact, by the end of the summer, after suffering the severe wreck at the Glen and a disappointing 23rd place showing at Bristol, Gordon’s 2009 Drive for Five was looking to be another dream vanishing in the mist.

However, when you’ve been doing this as long as Gordon – with his talent, knowledge, and overall career success tops amongst active drivers -=- you can never count him out. Entering the Chase in sixth place, he marched on and added another seven top-10 finishes to his resume. An early stumble at Loudon left him too far behind Johnson to ever pose a serious threat; however, at no point in the final 10 races of the season was Gordon mathematically removed from winning the Chase until Homestead. Yet even with that solid effort, it was certainly tough for the 38-year-old to fall short – again – to another miraculous season by the No. 48. Settling for a disappointing third in the standings, Gordon wound up just third-best in the four-car stable of Hendrick Motorsports.

Off-Track News: The Jeff Gordon Foundation celebrated A Decade of Caring with a special 10th anniversary campaign. This year, the Jeff Gordon Foundation initiated a program called the TEN Match: for every donation of $10 or more, Gordon promised to match the donation personally. That led to a new fundraising record for the organization, as the foundation announced it will pledge and donate $2.5 million to assorted charities by the end of 2009. In the 10 years since its inception, Gordon’s foundation has now raised nearly $10 million for the nation’s top children’s health charities. For more news and to help this worthy cause, please visit http://www.jeffgordonfoundation.org/.

2010 Outlook: DuPont’s primary sponsorship remains in place through 2010. National Guard looks to return for another eight races this year, with Pepsi likely to do the same. And after years of retirement rumors, Gordon put those to bed by making an announcement that he expects to remain behind the wheel of the No. 24 through 2013. Not much changing there, so…

Look out, Jimmie Johnson! In the past couple of years, Gordon has had to adjust to the CoT and fatherhood — a daunting task. Add the nagging ache in his back to those challenges, and No. 24 fans knew that the fifth Cup for the DuPont Chevy was not quite within reach. However, all of that is behind this driver now. With Steve Letarte remaining on the pit box and the Hendrick juggernaut of engineering know-how standing on the start/finish line with him, only Lady Luck will be blocking Gordon’s road to the head table in Vegas.

Stats of the Year: As mentioned above, Gordon joined Waltrip in holding the record for most second-place finishes in a season. He also finished 69.4% of his 2009 races in the top 10, a full 7% higher than his career top-10 stat.

After winning at Texas, only one track remains on the Sprint Cup schedule for which Gordon doesn’t own a trophy: Homestead.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B+
2007 Grade: A
2008 Grade: B
2009 Grade: A

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