In his twenty-second season in the Sprint Cup Series, Jeff Gordon continues to rewrite the NASCAR record books.
After finishing 7th last Sunday evening at Bristol Motor Speedway, Gordon became the only driver to start this season with four top 10 finishes in the first four races. The strong start makes it the first time in Gordon’s illustrious career that he has started a season with four consecutive top 10 finishes.
The strong start has also given Gordon and crew comfort room as he sits in tie for 3rd in points only 11 markers out of the lead.
It’s fair to say that the four-time series champion has started the 2014 campaign with a bang.
The strong start has to be refreshing for the No.24 team, as slow starts have played havoc with driver and crew the last two seasons.
In 2012, Gordon left Bristol with a 35th place finish after tangling with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on lap 360 and sat 25th in points. Last season, Gordon blew a right front tire while leading with 111 laps to go and finished 34th and left Bristol mired 21st in the standings.
While Gordon and crew were able to recover both times in the second half of the year to make NASCAR’s postseason, the slow starts did test the patience and confidence of Hendrick Motorsports’ senior driver.
But it does not appear that a slow start will factor into Gordon’s psyche and confidence this season.
If anything, Gordon’s strong start could foreshadow a dominant season for NASCAR’s winningest driver in the modern era (1972 to present).
The last two times Gordon started a season with three consecutive top 10s were in 2007 and 1997, respectively.
In 2007, Gordon won six races, including tying Dale Earnhardt for victories at Phoenix International Raceway in April and passing him one week later at Talladega Superspeedway. In addition Gordon recorded 21 top 5s and 30 top 10s (modern era record for top 10s) in 36 races. He also led the series in poles with seven, laps led with 1,300 and an average finish of 7.3.
Gordon also had an over 300-point lead after the twenty-sixth race at Richmond International Raceway before the Chase reseeding eliminated his lead and put him 20 points behind teammate Jimmie Johnson who won six regular season races to Gordon’s four.
Despite the reseeding, Gordon gave Johnson a serious run for the title.
He won back-to-back races at Talladega and Charlotte Motor Speedway and recorded nine top 10s in the 10-race Chase. Gordon’s worst finish was an 11th place result in the second race of the Chase at Dover International Speedway, which made his average finish in the 10 races an outstanding 5.1.
While Johnson still beat out Gordon by 77 points, Gordon’s accomplishments in 2007 made it one of the greatest statistical performances in NASCAR’s modern era.
Like 2007, 1997 was another phenomenal season for Gordon.
Gordon began the 1997 season by winning the opening two races of the season including his first of three Daytona 500s, which made him the youngest winner – at the time – to win The Great American Race at the age of 25. Gordon would go on to win 10 times in ’97, including three of NASCAR’s four “Crown Jewel” races: the Daytona 500, Coca Cola 600 and Mountain Dew Southern 500.
In addition, Gordon recorded 22 top fives and 23 top tens in 32 starts with an average finish of 9.6. He also led the series in laps led at 1,645.
But unlike ’07, Gordon was able to close out the ’97 season with a championship by edging out Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin by 14 and 29 points, respectively.
Since his impressive ’07 campaign, wins have been hard to come by for Gordon as he’s only won seven races in six seasons.
The inconsistent winning has made critics like Darrel Waltrip and Jeff Hammond question Gordon’s skill and fire multiple times.
While it is true that Gordon is not winning six or 10 races every season, the reality is that very few drivers have been able to produce those numbers with today’s competition.
In fact, the last driver to win double-digit races in a season was Jimmie Johnson in ’07 with 10 – the first driver to pull that feat since Gordon won 13 races in 1998. The closest driver since then has been Carl Edwards with nine victories in 2008 – he later went winless in 2009.
Winning one race in a season is already hard enough to accomplish, ask Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his fan base if there is any doubt.
All that a driver and team can ask for in today’s NASCAR is to place themselves in a position to win. If the team does that enough times, they will eventually break through and get to victory circle.
And that’s what Gordon and crew have been able to do lately.
Since going winless in 2010, Gordon has won at least one race in each of the last three seasons. Gordon has also made every Chase since 2005, which shows that he is still performing at a high level.
And don’t think age will slow down Gordon.
Since turning 40 back in August, 2011, Gordon has already won five races.
Like the other major sports, some people in NASCAR, both experts and fans alike, believe in the perception that age slows down one’s instincts, aggression and drive, thus making them a shadow of their former self.
That’s what some believe will happen to Gordon now that he’s in his 40s.
But history has shown that age has nothing to do with a driver’s success.
In fact, drivers have still won titles in their 40s.
Dale Earnhardt won two of his seven titles in 1993 and 1994 after reaching his 40s. This was not a fluke as Dale Jarrett won his only title in 1999 at the youthful age of 43.
That same potential also lies with Gordon.
Whether people believe he can still muster another title run is irrelevant at this point.
What truly matters is if Gordon still believes he can.
And that is the one thing the competition does not want to see – a confident Gordon.
Confidence in the team and yourself is everything in the sport of NASCAR.
And if you give an 88-race winner like Gordon a shot of confidence, he will deliver results.
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