Tomorrow Never Knows: Jeff Gordon's Close But No Cigar 1996 Season
Years long after the helmet's been hung and the No. 24 Chevrolet finds its place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Vallejo, CA's Jeff Gordon will be amongst the immortal motorsports legends in Charlotte, NC.
Before he was called "a pioneer" by Clint Bowyer last year during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship week in Las Vegas, Gordon was the "golden boy" of the sport.
He entered the sport of NASCAR with a most precarious look, donning a mustache and mullet that would make even the avid Jeff Foxworthy impersonator cringe.
Working his way through the Nationwide Series for two seasons (1991-'92), Gordon elevated his way up to the Cup series with crew chief Ray Evernham to join Rick Hendrick's No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet team for the 1993 season.
To say the least, Gordon's never looked back, as he's won 84 career races, four championships, and all the accolades and awards that come with being a stock car icon.
In spite of all those accomplishments, perhaps the one oddity of Gordon's sparkling career (if you want to call it such) was his 1996 season.
Gordon was coming off the heels of his championship in '95 in which he won seven races while logging in 17 top-fives, 23 top-10's and 8 pole positions, one of his sterling efforts all at the age of 24. Consider the fact that he had to duel with Dale Earnhardt for the sport's top prize and it's impressive to know he was able to defeat one of the sport's best.
Coming into the 1996 season, not only was Gordon defending his title against Earnhardt, but he was also battling teammate Terry Labonte as well as Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, and Rusty Wallace.
Starting his championship defense in the '96 Daytona 500, Gordon and "The Rainbow Warriors" got off to a fast start - that is, into the outside retaining wall off turn four.
Tangling with Jeremy Mayfield off the fourth corner, the No. 24 Chevy smacked the wall, taking Gordon out of contention and placing him 42nd in the 43-car field.
Rockingham wasn't any kinder to "The Wonderboy," completing just 134 of 393 laps before a blown motor relegated him to a 40th place finish.
So much for that title defense, right?
Things would pick up for Gordon and his team in the spring, climbing up to the top-five in the points standings in just seven races with wins at Richmond, Darlington, and Bristol along with five top-three finishes.
Despite climbing up to second in the points standings with a third-place finish at Martinsville, a crash at Talladega dropped "The Kid" down to fourth in the championship chase just a week later.
That would basically sum up the season for Gordon, where weeks of great races would be spoiled by that costly DNF or trip to the garage area for mechanical issues.
From Sonoma to Daytona, the defending champion went on a six conseuctive top-six finishing streak which saw back-to-back wins at Dover and Pocono.
New Hampshire snapped that strong streak, as ignition problems befell the No. 24 team to a 34th-place finish.
Like a rollercoaster, Gordon and Co. found their groove again with a solid sixth at Pocono and a win at Talladega which vaulted them to the first position in the points race in late July.
However, his hometown return to Indianapolis wasn't a happy one, going from the pole to a 37th crash-DNF that dropped him back to fourth in the points standings.
Similar to his winter woes start, Gordon didn't stay too long in the dumps, putting together another long streak of top-five finishes. In fact, he logged in eight consecutive top-fives, which included wins at Darlington and a three-race victory streak at Dover, Martinsville, and North Wilkesboro.
Those stellar performances saw Gordon go from fourth at Indy to the points lead starting at Dover, building a 111-point lead over Terry Labonte that seemed insurmountable at the time.
As quickly as the 25-year-old appeared closer to hoisting his second championship trophy in just four Cup seasons, his efforts were dashed in the months of October courtesy of inconsistency.
Charlotte and Rockingham dealt the final blows to Gordon's championship bid, as a fault motor at CMS sent him to a 31st-place finish while "The Rock" saw him struggle with an ill-handling car and a 12th-place effort.
Races at Phoenix and Atlanta were more indicative of Gordon and the No. 24's strength, finishing fifth and third respectively to close out what was a great year.
That said, Terry Labonte had the best year, riding on consistency to capture his second Cup championship after a 12-year drought. Sure, "Texas Terry" only had two wins, but he also had six-race streak of top-five finishes to close out '96.
Solid finishes on a weekly basis is what propelled the Corpus Christi, TX native to his second triumph while inconsistency, especially in the first half of the year, cost Gordon at the 1996 title.
No matter how painful some racing fans might find the 2004 and '07 seasons for Gordon and his team, the 1996 season's looked at by others as "the lost opportunity." After all, with 10 wins, 21 top-fives, 24 top-10's, five poles, and 2,314 laps led all year long, those would be good enough for a championship.
Just one look at the DNF column and that's why NASCAR was and still is a sport that rewards drivers who are consistent from the start to finish.
Then again, tomorrow never knows in stock car racing, and there's no telling when a racer may lose that edge and ability to drop the hammer and duke it out for three to four hours of hard gritty racing across America.