Still Winning After All These Years: Jeff Gordon & His 700th NASCAR Sprint Cup Start
Think back to November 15, 1992, either being in the living room with family watching the Hooters 500 on ESPN or being among the hundreds of thousands of racing fans who eagerly witnessed the final race for NASCAR immortal Richard Petty as well as a tight championship battle.
Most of the focus was on the beloved Randleman, NC native as he competed in his last start as a driver in his famed No. 43 STP Pontiac Grand Prix before a crash relegated him to a 35th-place finish. Also, there was a hotly contested chase for the Cup title, with six drivers in line for the crown that included Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Harry Gant, Kyle Petty, and Mark Martin.
Somewhat in the afterthought department on that afternoon was 21-year-old Jeffrey Michael Gordon. Fresh off a strong fourth-place points finish in the NASCAR Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) season standings, it was the debut of "The Kid" and "Wonderboy" with his No. 24 DuPont Chevy team. Of course, there's a little backstory that comes with this first start at Atlanta.
Born and raised in Vallejo, CA, Gordon's family decided to relocate over in Pittsboro, IN. The move was made in order for Gordon to chase a racing career originally in open wheel cars. Aggressive, calculating, and ambitious, the mustached, mullet-wearing talent had sought after his dream to compete in the Indycar ranks to challenge and win an Indianapolis 500 trophy.
Instead, a fateful trip to the Buck Baker Racing School at Rockingham, NC in 1989 changed those plans and one of America's greatest open wheel prospects was NASCAR bound. The rest, as often said, was history. In a career that's spanned over 20 years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with four Cup titles, 87 points-paying race wins, 72 poles, 299 top-fives, 416 top-10's in 699 starts, to say the least, it's nothing short of remarkable.
Of course, Gordon has been surrounded by great personnel, a key ingredient to those wins, poles, and titles. Among those who have contributed to those outstanding numbers include original crew chief Ray Evernham, whose chemistry with the young driver propelled the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team into a tour de force with three Cup titles in over six seasons, pit crew members Chad Knaus (now Jimmie Johnson's crew chief) and Steve Letarte (now Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s crew chief), and Robbie Loomis, who was Petty's crew chief during his final Cup start, among those who have contributed to Gordon's amazing career.
Gordon's dynastic run in the 1990's dynamically changed the sport from being a "good ole' boy, Southern ritual" to a nationwide, corporate marathon with young drivers groomed to speak publicly to the media as well as they drive their machines.
Consider this: prior to Gordon's arrival in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, most drivers were experienced, seasoned veterans whose careers usually started with mediocre equipment and teams. Mark Martin was an outstanding American Speed Association talent in the early 1980's but when he arrived in NASCAR, his first cars weren't nearly the same caliber of Gordon's about a decade later. Still, Martin's had also an illustrious career, but those wins and consistent points finishes came in his mid to late 30's.
In what was an unprecedented move, car owner Rick Hendrick, who fielded entries for Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader during the early 90's, signed Gordon to his Cup organization in mid-1992 to drive what would become the No. 24 DuPont Refinishes entry.
In a sort of package deal, Ray Evernham, who worked with Gordon that year in what's now the Nationwide Series, joined along, helping form the personnel that would become known as "The Rainbow Warriors."
While the move upset the Ford Motor Company, the manufacturer that Gordon's Nationwide efforts were aligned with, as well as car owner Bill Davis, the unorthodox signing created a major shift in the sport completely.
Instead of driving "junk" cars for a team that would at best get top-15, top-20 results on race day, Hendrick supplied Gordon with the best resources possible. From the people at the shop to the cars on the track, in just three years, the once overlooked driver in the 1992 Hooters 500 went from rookie honors 14th in the '93 standings to a dominant champion in '95. And oh yea, the mustache and mullet were about gone, instead replaced with a corporate, clean-cut look that has become the standard with today's young talents in stock car racing.
Who would've thought that a young open wheel prospect would take the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series by storm in just 21 years? Perhaps the believers emerged after the '93 Daytona 500, where Gordon started from the third spot, took the lead on lap one, and contended for the win before finishing fifth.
Maybe they showed up when he won the '94 Coca-Cola 600, a race that combined Gordon's masterful driving alongside brilliant strategy by then crew chief Evernham via a late two-tire stop.
Whatever the reason, simply put, Gordon's run has been phenomenal, with those three Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600 victories, a quartet of Brickyard 400 and Southern 500 wins, as well as triumphing in 24 of the 25 tracks that have comprised the Cup division since '93.
All the right opportunities have been there for those Hall of Fame numbers, like great personnel, maintained focus, as well as that dynamic talent to wheel high speed chariots.
On Saturday, May 11th, 2013, when the lights turn on at Darlington Raceway, Gordon will be embarking in his 700th NASCAR Sprint Cup start. Although the former young gun has grown up to become a grizzled veteran that's not quite the same speedster from the '90s, there's still a lot of fire within one of the sport's all-time greatest drivers.
Championships may not be so easily to come by for the No. 24 team now led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, as the youth movement of NASCAR has stalled his long-mentioned "Drive for Five," but wins aren't out of the question.
Some of the familiar components to Gordon's long Cup run may be gone, like Evernham, Knuas, Loomis, Letarte, and (to an extent) DuPont, but the desire to win and be a contender every week is still there. There's a sense of familiarity with the No. 24 team this weekend, with the famed "FireStorm" colors adorning the Cromax Pro Chevrolet SS as well as Darlington Raceway, otherwise known as "The Lady in Black." Much like Tiger Woods at the Augusta National Golf Course during The Masters or Rick Mears at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gordon and Darlington are a potent combination for history and success.
Starting eighth in his 700th Cup race, Gordon has a bit of a way's to go to contend for the victory but if history holds true, the Bojangles Southern 500 will be like any other Cup event at the beloved South Carolina speedway - a true racer's marathon. Equipment will be put to the test alongside patience, as drivers will have to pace themselves for at least 367 laps with tires that will wear out faster than Charlie Sheen's run of "winning."
If there's a driver who's always risen to the challenge of Darlington in any kind of Cup car, be it a boxy Chevy Lumina, the sleek Monte Carlo, the beasty Impala Car of Tomorrow model, or the Gen-6 SS, it's Jeff Gordon. Don't overlook the 42-year-old legend, who might turn heads once more when he grabs that checkered flag soon, perhaps tonight at Darlington Raceway for a sixth 500-mile victory. As an old McFadden and Whitehead song goes, "ain't no stopping us now, we're on the run," and that's exactly what Gordon and Co. will be doing tonight at Darlington, SC.
Author's Notes: I dedicate this article to all the people I love in my life, first of course to my family, including my dad, my two beautiful sisters, and of course, my mom. Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there! Also, much love to those who believe in me. Thank you. And of course, congratulations to one of my lifelong heroes, Jeff Gordon, on his 700th NASCAR Sprint Cup start. May there be many more checkered flags and titles in your future!