We all knew it was coming but it still hurt to see it happen.
With just eight weeks remaining for Jeff Gordon‘s final season behind the wheel in NASCAR, friend and longtime competitor Tony Stewart announced Wednesday that he’ll join Gordon in watching from afar beginning in 2017.
The move, while expected given Stewart’s age and relative lack of production in recent seasons effectively gives an end date for the previous generation of drivers. With Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and others retiring over the last decade, Gordon and Stewart served as the last – and greatest – stars from the generation of old. It’s a group from the “glory days,” as fans would call it, before the Chase for the Sprint Cup or the “Car of Tomorrow.”
As both men’s time behind the wheel winds to a close, the question must to be asked: which driver enjoyed a better career? Is Gordon’s stranglehold on NASCAR stats enough to give him the edge or do Stewart’s victories and contributions to all forms of motorsports lift him above his competitors?
Which of NASCAR’s Retiring Stars Has Had the Better Career?
Stewart has had an amazing career and is undoubtedly a first round NASCAR Hall of Famer, but only one driver has come to symbolize the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the last 20-plus years: Gordon.
NASCAR’s first true wunderkind, Gordon, then called the Rainbow Warrior by his ever-growing fanbase, was a trailblazer that completely changed the landscape of NASCAR.
It’s easy to forget that critics and fans alike scoffed at the idea of Gordon, then sporting a pencil-thin mustache as he attempted his best Dale Earnhardt impersonation, back in 1992. That’s when the California-born driver was announced as the newest driver for Hendrick Motorsports, piloting a new third car for the team in an era where multi-car organizations had struggled to gain a foothold on success.
“When I first met him in the flesh I sat there and stared at him like, ‘You’re too young and little to drive one of these cars,'” HMS owner Rick Hendrick said in a 2011 interview with ESPN. “He had that little mustache. It blew me away how young he looked.”
Yet, even as a teenager, no one showed more potential than Gordon. At 19 years old, Gordon outran defending Xfinity Series champion Chuck Bown in the same vehicle at a Charlotte Motor Speedway test. Gordon would make his Cup debut at 21 for Hendrick, a feat unheard of at the time. By 23, he was a champion of the Coca-Cola 600 and the inaugural Brickyard 400, earning his first Cup championship a year later at 24.
In the many years since those early moments, the Rainbow Warrior has gone on to earn 92 wins, including three Daytona 500s and five Brickyard 400s. The four-time champion’s resumé includes victories at every active Cup Series track, save for Kentucky Speedway, as well as a series record 789 straight starts.
Gordon’s winning history speaks for itself in an argument against any driver not named Jimmie Johnson from the last two decades. But for the sake of comparison, let’s look at some of Gordon and Stewart’s career stats, broken down to a per-year average to account for the different lengths of the two drivers’ time in the sport.
|Jeff Gordon||Tony Stewart|
A quick glance shows that Gordon leads Stewart in every category, and that’s without making note of a few glaring omissions from Stewart’s resumé. The Hoosier is still winless in the Daytona 500, has only one triumph in the All-Star Race to Gordon’s four, and trails Gordon by six victories at Darlington and four victories at Bristol and Martinsville.
Gordon also leads Stewart in championships, holding four to Stewart’s three even if fans include Stewart’s gimmicky – albeit legendary – run to the 2011 title despite running pedestrian at best in the 26 races before the beginning of the Chase.
Stewart may not have the stats of Gordon in NASCAR, but his fans would argue that his ability in other racecars is what sets him apart from the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Not so fast.
Yes, Stewart has titles in all of USAC’s primary divisions, and even an IndyCar title to his name (though it came in arguably the series’ weakest season). However, Gordon’s open-wheel stat sheet is nothing to scoff at. Gordon turned heads in 1989, earning the USAC Midget Car Racing Rookie of the Year title and taking the acclaimed Night Before the 500 at what’s now Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. Gordon would go on to earn USAC Midget and Silver Crown championships in 1990 and ’91, respectively, earning wins in the Hut Hundred, Belleville Midget Nationals and a second Night Before the 500 victory along the way.
Gordon never received the funding necessary for an IndyCar move, but was offered to come test drive a formula car for Formula 1 driver Jackie Stewart, a test Gordon declined to focus on NASCAR.
Given his raw talent and prowess, it’s not a stretch to imagine Gordon could have earned the same level of success that Stewart managed in his brief IndyCar career. Stewart’s 1997 title came despite four finishes outside of the top 10 in 10 races and only a lone win at Pikes Peak, not exactly a highlight reel as far as IndyCar championships go.
Gordon could have ventured into open wheel, but it wasn’t his way. The California-born, Indiana-raised driver chose instead to stay with one sport, NASCAR, and put all of his efforts into being the best he could at that form of motorsport.
The results of Gordon’s decision speak for themselves. While Stewart may have regard among fans of many series no other driver in this generation has singlehandedly become a representative for their sport like Gordon has for NASCAR. There’s a reason every track on the schedule has made the effort to reward Gordon with something for his commitment to NASCAR throughout the years and why many lifelong fans are going to be left lost following the season finale in Homestead.
Despite standing at only 5’8,” Gordon has grown to become a larger-than-life icon in his Hall of Fame-worthy NASCAR career. With or without stats, Gordon’s legacy stands above all other active drivers on the circuit, even Stewart. Chase Elliott has some massive shoes to fill. – Aaron Bearden
I’ll give props to Gordon; he’s a heck of a racer. But as for who’s had the better career? Hands down, it’s Stewart. Other than a Daytona 500 victory (and there’s still one more chance) what hasn’t the Indiana native accomplished?
He’s a Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, two-time Brickyard 400 winner, three-time Sprint Cup champion and 48-time Cup race winner. He’s won two championships as a NASCAR team owner, one by himself and one with Kevin Harvick. He’s been victorious three times in the Budweiser Duels, three times in the Sprint Unlimited and once in the Sprint All-Star Race.
And that’s just during his time in NASCAR.
Stewart is also the 2006 IROC champion with four wins in the now-defunct series. He won three IndyCar races, was the 1996 Indy 500 polesitter, took Rookie of the Year in that race and won the 1997 series championship.
Before that, he was the 1991 USAC Rookie of the Year, the USAC National Midget champion in 1994 and ’95 and won the Triple Crown that second year. He was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2001.
Oh yeah, he’s also won in ARCA, the Prelude to the Dream charity race, and the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown. Makes Gordon’s 92 Cup wins and five NXS ones seem a bit paltry, doesn’t it?
Let’s take a closer look at those numbers and how the two drivers stack up while racing together. While Stewart’s three championships and 48 wins are fewer than Gordon’s, he won all of them in times that were even more competitive than when Gordon started his career. From 1993-98, when it was just Gordon and perhaps Earnhardt tearing up the track, there were 20 unique winners.
From 1999-2015, there have been 49 unique victors. Gordon has won 50 times in that time frame, while Stewart has won 48 times. So even though Gordon might have more wins overall the two drivers are nearly equal going head-to-head in a time where there was more parity in the sport.
Stewart also has more wins in the NXS than Gordon, earning 11 to Gordon’s five. Stewart also won two Camping World Truck Series races, both at Richmond in the early 2000s.
Stewart may have one fewer championship than Gordon, but he has something Four-Time doesn’t: a Chase championship (actually, it’s two). In addition to winning a title in both formats, Stewart has come from behind to win while also building and maintaining a points lead en route to the big trophy. It is also worth noting that Stewart has won a Winston, Nextel, and Sprint Cup — something no other wheelman can ever lay claim to.
And one of those championships? It was won while driving for his own team, something that hadn’t been accomplished since Alan Kulwicki did so in 1992. For Stewart, that title served as an example of his immense talent behind the wheel, winning five of the final 10 races including the finale at Homestead after starting at the back of the pack multiple times for various reasons.
Today, Stewart-Haas Racing is a four-car powerhouse team housing two other Cup champions in Kevin Harvick (who won the title for SHR last season) and Kurt Busch, rounded out by Stewart and one of the sport’s most marketable drivers in Danica Patrick. When “Smoke” hangs his helmet up, he’ll hand the steering wheel of his No. 14 over to Clint Bowyer, a veteran able to take mid-level Michael Waltrip Racing to second in the final points standings in 2012.
But Stewart isn’t just involved on the Cup level. He also owns a handful of USAC teams, winning multiple championships as an owner for a cast of characters that’s included fellow Cup drivers JJ Yeley and Josh Wise. He also owns and promotes races for Eldora Raceway, instrumental in bringing NASCAR back to its dirt roots three years ago with the Camping World Truck Series Mudsummer Classic taking place on the Ohio oval.
Stewart is also co-owner for two other dirt tracks and earlier this year purchased the All-Star Circuit of Champions Sprint Car Series.
Throughout the course of his career, it hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies for Stewart. Far from it. He was long considered NASCAR’s “Bad Boy” following incidents involving media, photographers and series officials. A stint in anger management courses and a move back to his hometown mellowed Stewart out. Racing sprint cars, Stewart’s greatest passion, also helped keep him calm.
The past few years have admittedly been rough for Smoke, having only won once since 2013 and missing numerous races after breaking his right leg while in a sprint car accident and again following the tragedy with Kevin Ward Jr. Between the lack of being in the car on a consistent basis and his inability to get the various rule packages under wraps, Stewart has only racked up 17 top-10 finishes from 2013-15.
Despite Stewart’s struggles the past few years they do not diminish what he has been able to accomplish behind the wheel of a race car over his career. With one more season of racing, perhaps Stewart will be able to rekindle that fire and go out on top. His goals for the 2016 season? Winning the Daytona 500, Southern 500, Brickyard 400 and the championship.
If anyone can do it, Stewart can. The numbers don’t lie; Smoke not only raced more than Gordon but he conquered it all along the way. – Sean Fesko
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