In the waning laps of the Kobalt Tools 400, FOX’s Mike Joy mentioned how Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson were the modern day version of Richard Petty and David Pearson when it comes to 1-2 finishes.
Though Stewart and Johnson’s combined total, thirteen, is much less than the 63 times Pearson and Petty occupied the top two spots, it made me realize we were in a for a treat in the final laps. After all, they have won the last seven championships and have more wins than any other driver since Johnson’s arrival to the Sprint Cup scene ten years ago. That’s right; for the last ten years, no one has been better than these two in terms of wins, championships, and thrilling performances. They are the modern day version of Petty and Pearson in more ways than just 1-2 finishes – they are the best out there.
So where does that leave the “other guy,” the man that once dominated this sport who many believe will go down as one the top-5 greatest drivers of all time when he decides to hang up his helmet for good?
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over ten years since Jeff Gordon won his fourth Cup championship. He was just 30 years old, and was one of only three drivers at the time to have four or more championships at NASCAR’s top level. Additionally, he got there quicker than the record co-holders Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty — Earnhardt was age 39 while Petty was 35 after their fourth titles, respectively.
At the end of his fourth championship campaign in 2001, Gordon was averaging a Cup title almost every other year and 6.4 victories during the course of a season. It was a torrid pace, and many expected him to eventually break Earnhardt and Petty’s record for the most series championships. He was also considered a shoo-in to move up to second on the all-time wins list.
Here we are, a decade later, and Gordon has done neither.
Instead, he has fallen back a spot in the all-time championship rankings as his protégé Johnson has gone on to win the Cup five times in row. Johnson is also now tied for fourth most victories ever with Bobby Allison at 85, but still a good 20 short of second place David Pearson’s 105. Those numbers are incredible, but the point is Gordon’s pace fell off drastically, and the question to be asked is why?
Perhaps more importantly, has it hurt his legacy?
Let’s answer the latter question first because it’s quite simple; no, Gordon’s legacy is not hurt at all. For one, he has still put up very good numbers since winning his last championship. His 27 wins since the start of 2002 are the third-most of any driver, more than former champions Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth, who have competed in each of those seasons.
Secondly, the competition is greater than it was during Gordon’s decade of dominance in the 1990s, with more teams competing for wins today than ever before. The main thing to keep in mind, however, is that many of the sport’s all-time greats have been through the same kind of rut, and some have suffered a much worse dropoff in production as their careers went on.
Richard Petty, for example, drove the final eight seasons of his career without winning a race, and his last championship came 13 years before he retired in 1992. Three-time champ Darrell Waltrip also went his last eight seasons without a victory, and his last title came 15 years before his retirement in 2000. Even Earnhardt saw a decline in numbers in the latter stages of his career, although he appeared to be returning to form before his untimely death in the 2001 Daytona 500. As a matter of fact, the better question is to ask what legends _haven’t_ slumped as they get older.
It’s hard to answer, because not many do get better with age.
Gordon’s case is interesting because he is still relatively young for a racer, having just turned 40 last year. His numbers have been dropping since turning 30, excluding the outstanding campaign he had in 2007, where he won six times and finished in the top 10 in thirty out of the 36 races. As I said, history shows that most drivers experience a decline at some point, but typically not this early, when many, including Johnson and Stewart have entered their prime.
There are a number of reasons to speculate what stopped Gordon’s momentum from the 1990s. The departure of Ray Evernham, who was his crew chief up until the middle of the 1999 season, is what a lot of people believe to have been the catalyst for this decline. Others will point to not being able to adjust to the new CoT, which has been modified several times since its debut five years ago. Gordon won ten races that first year, in 2007 when the car was running part-time but went winless in two of the following four seasons.
There are other, off-track factors, such as becoming a father and lingering back issues that may have played a role, but none of them should be labeled as the main reason. There has simply been a changing of the guard, and his name is Jimmie Johnson – the same guy he told Rick Hendrick to take a chance on – and former enemy in Tony Stewart, the same guys who finished 1-2 this past Sunday, that have replaced Gordon as the top drivers in the sport.
The change didn’t happen this past weekend, though. In fact, it probably happened in 2006, when Johnson picked up his first of five straight titles. With Johnson’s dynasty, and Stewart on one of the hottest streaks of his career at the age of 40, Gordon has slowly become just another challenger. He did the same thing to Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in the mid-1990s, overtaking him as the top dog of the top tier of American motorsports. Eventually, someone will do the same to both Johnson and Stewart.
For the driver of the number 24 Chevy, he will still go down as one of the best ever, but the days of Jeff Gordon being the man to beat are long gone.
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