Through different cars, rules and decades, Gordon still winning
By Gray Caldwell
CONCORD, N.C.— The milestones keep coming for Jeff Gordon.
In 2014, he made his 750th start, earned his 90th win and 75th pole position and passed Mark Martin for second all-time with his 454th top-10 finish.
And though a fifth NASCAR Cup Series championship remained just out of Gordon's reach in 2014, the level of success the 43-year-old driver has been able to maintain more than two decades after his first Cup race has been stunning.
But not surprising.
"I ask fans all the time, 'What were you doing in 1995? What were you doing in 2001? What were you doing in 2007? What were you doing in 2014?' said Steve Letarte, Gordon's crew chief for four-plus seasons. "Because Jeff Gordon was winning races. Every one of those years and a ton of those years in between."
Gordon's first full season in NASCAR came in 1993, when he was 21 years old. He won his first race the following year and he hasn't stopped since.
Back then, Ray Evernham was Gordon's crew chief.
Together they won three of Gordon's four championships. But even as Gordon stayed in contention for a fifth championship until the last possible moment at Phoenix International Raceway, Evernham was hesitant to say he was driving like the Gordon of old.
"He's racing like the Jeff Gordon of 2014 at 43 years old in a new-style car," Evernham said. "Jeff Gordon is smart. He was smart back then. Obviously he was brave and he was talented and he was hard-charging—it takes a different type of a race-car driver now. The combination of him and (crew chief) Alan Gustafson and what they've figured out is what it takes to win and be up front this year.
"Is Jeff racing like he did back then? Well, he's winning, and that's the same as he was doing back then, but I think it takes a different driver to win now than it did 20 years ago."
Evernham explained that every sport changes. Particularly in a sport like NASCAR that involves mechanics and engineering and advances in technology, "nothing stays the same."
Even beyond new car and tire configurations, Gustafson pointed to rules like double-file restarts and green-white-checkered finishes.
It's up to the athlete to evolve with the ever-changing dynamics of the sport, and that is exactly what Gordon has done.
"I think as a driver, you gain experience over time," Gordon said. "You take the skills that you built up to that point and you try to take advantage of them, but then use that experience to also hone those skills and become a better driver. That's your goal, to always be a better driver."
Gustafson said that Gordon has utilized that experience as well as anyone in the sport.
"There's the line where you have physical abilities and youthful exuberance and you don't know what you don't know," Gustafson said. "Then there's this line of experience and intelligence, and really where they meet is the sweet spot, I think, in somebody's career."
He noted that Gordon has repeatedly managed to "reinvent himself" to extend the shelf life of that sweet spot.
But, Gordon acknowledged, he couldn't do it without the full No. 24 team and the support of Hendrick Motorsports. Without a fast car, the success wouldn't be possible. Without a crew chief making the key calls on race day, the skill and experience could go to waste.
"I would say the thing that is very similar to when Ray was my crew chief versus now when Alan's my crew chief is I've had great race cars," he smiled. "It's allowed me to build confidence in what I'm doing and it's allowed me to utilize my experience to go to tracks and have more patience, put myself in good positions, be aggressive when I need to be aggressive and not only be a threat to win, but be consistent."
That consistency had Gordon poised as a threat for the title all the way to the finish line at Phoenix, when a second runner-up result in the Eliminator Round was just short of what was required to move on.
Still, he went on to lead a race-high 161 laps in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, taking home his 23rd top-10 finish of 2014 and securing sixth place in the final Chase standings.
"All-in-all, a lot of good in 2014 and some disappointment, but the effort was there, for sure, and the commitment was there," Gustafson said, noting that the ultimate goal is always to take home a championship. "It's bittersweet knowing we were so close and so competitive and we didn't get it. Now we have to turn our focus to 2015 and use our experience to make us better and the fact that we fell short to motivate us."
Gordon said that the success of the No. 24 team in 2014 has "inspired" him, and he has no doubt that he and the team will be racing just as hard in 2015.
That drive—and the continued success it has brought with it—puts Gordon in a class of athlete very few have attained.
"There are certain athletes in the world that over a span of years can change and adapt and continue to be competitive," Evernham said. "When you've got somebody that can do that and be at the top of a sport over the span of 20 years, it just says what an incredible athlete or what an incredible person they are."
"When you mention the huge names in other sports like (Joe) Montana and people, whether it's football, baseball, basketball, you've got to put Jeff Gordon's name in that group."
"I think he transcends not only NASCAR but every sport in general," he said. "I can't think of a single person in a single sport who has been able to extend his career to the length that Jeff Gordon has and continue to be successful. In different formats, in different cars, at different racetracks with different crew chiefs, the one constant of success will be Jeff."