2011 Ride: No. 24 Hendrick Motorports Chevrolet
2011 Primary Sponsors: DuPont Finishes (14 races), Drive to End Hunger (22 races), Pepsi (2 races)
2011 Owners: Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon
2011 Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
2011 Stats: 36 starts, 3 wins, 13 top fives, 18 top 10s, 3 DNFs, eighth in points
Milestone: Achieved his 85th win at Atlanta on September 6, 2011, earning Gordon the position of third on the all-time Cup winners list, surpassing Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. It is doubtful, however, that he will notch another 21 wins to unseat David Pearson for second.
Best Finish: While Gordon added three more to his all-time winning total, the spring Phoenix battle and June Pocono “track meets” were anything but exciting. I guess he saved all the nail-biting for taking the all-time third pedestal at Atlanta, muscling past Jimmie Johnson with just two laps to go – reminding all of us how he won a good number of those other 84 victories.
High Point: While the win at Phoenix reassured fans that Gordon was not finished as a NASCAR driver, notching his first victory in 66 races, it also reinforced an offseason decision-making process at Hendrick. Their crew chief shuffle, which seated Alan Gustafson comfortably atop the pit box for Gordon, was part of a shell game that left former head wrench Steve Letarte with Earnhardt Jr. and Lance McGrew working with Mark Martin.
This early-season victory for Gordon set the No. 24 team up faster than any of those combinations, their resurgence indicating a possible fifth championship run. Gordon and Co. departed the raw vistas of Rattlesnake Hill with lots of positive vibes for the upcoming year.
Low Point: Kansas, Oct. 9, 2011. With a fairly strong start to the Chase, Gordon started the fourth race in the playoffs in 10th. His car ran near the front throughout the day, even snaring the lead for those precious bonus points. Then, with but three laps to go, his engine detonated – pretty much putting a bullet in any hopes remaining for that elusive fifth Cup.
Summary: So it comes, so it goes. 2010 brought us numerous races with Gordon finding the wall, being spun out and generally struggling to find his mojo so terribly needed to win the moniker he sourly attributed to the No. 48 – Mr. Five-Time.
2011 started much the same, without the giant egg in the “W” column. After he watched Trevor Bayne grab his first win in a startling Daytona 500, Gordon snared a victory for himself at Phoenix, only to wreck out at Vegas. Throughout the year, we glimpsed moments of familiar greatness, only to be reminded how fickle Lady Luck can be – sometimes the following week.
While the change atop the pit box with the installation of Alan Gustafson seemed to have rediscovered some of the lost championship form for the No. 24, it never lasted long enough to make anybody believe a championship could really happen one more time – not this year. Through the first six playoff races, Gordon posted just one top-five finish and by the time he surged to third at Martinsville, it was far too late.
85 wins is nothing to sneeze at, and Mr. Gordon most assuredly has a spot reserved for him in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But after a half-decade of chasing his teammate for Cups, the DuPont crew needs to live one more stellar year, building momentum during NASCAR’s playoffs to regain Gordon’s spot atop the ladder.
Team Ranking: Third. Don’t let this stat mislead you. Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon finished the year out ranked sixth, seventh and eighth with but 17 points separating them.
Off-Track News: Gordon was named NASCAR Illustrated‘s Person of the Year for 2011, in recognition of his on and off-track accomplishments. This year, the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation announced an expanded initiative to include accessible cancer treatments for the children of Rwanda, promising to raise $1.5 million for this cause over the next three years.
He also joined the Clinton Global Initiative, visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a worldwide effort to improve the lives of 43 million internally displaced persons and refugees around the world.
2012 Outlook: Few changes are on the books for the No. 24 in 2012. Gustafson is expected to remain on the box, Drive to End Hunger is signed up for another 22 races next year and word has it that DuPont and Pepsi are expected to return as well.
That simply leaves… how will Jeff run? Expect to see his Chevy near the front of the pack, in the Chase and possibly in victory lane a time or two. But don’t expect this team to surge all the way to the front, unless unforeseen offseason improvements are made. It will take more than just a really good effort to win a fifth Cup – it’s going to take an unadulterated commitment to winning every single week.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: B+
2007 Grade: A
2008 Grade: B
2009 Grade: A
2010 Grade: B
2011 Grade: A-
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