2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 24 Driver to End Hunger/DuPont Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Years with current team: 19
Under contract through: Lifetime
Best points finish: 1st (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001)
Hometown: Vallejo, Calif.
Born: August 4, 1971
When, exactly, did Jeff Gordon become an elder statesman in NASCAR? The driver once known as “Wonderboy” when he came to the Cup Series so impossibly young to be so good is now set to turn 40 midway through 2011. Among active, full-time drivers, only Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte have more starts, and no one’s been in his current ride longer.
This year will be Gordon’s 19th full season in the Sprint Cup ranks, all with Hendrick Motorsports, and what a career he’s had: His 82 wins rank highest among active drivers; his four championships rank fourth all-time; and his 274 top-5 finishes make up nearly half (45 percent) of his starts. No matter what happens from here, Gordon will go down as one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.
Yet his 2010 season made some scratch their heads and wonder if the years had finally caught up to him. For only the second time since 1994, Gordon didn’t win, but it was the way in which he lost that was alarming. From poor pit calls to self-induced mistakes, a man once revered for closing the deal turned into a virtual on-track charity, auctioning off multiple races on late restarts. Left powerless down the stretch, his pit crew was donated to teammate Jimmie Johnson, who captured a fifth straight title. Instead, he’s now trailing a former protégé with his last trip to the head table at the banquet a decade old. Is NASCAR’s golden child losing his gilded shine?
In short: No way. Gordon has struggled with the current car — that’s no secret — but 2010 was a year in which Hendrick Motorsports struggled as an organization. The spoiler change threw the best driver of his age a curveball, not a knockout punch. Looking at NASCAR history, he’s still capable of entering a second prime, as seven drivers have won championships at age 40 or older.
And let’s not discount this driver’s biggest asset: He’s pissed off. Those were the words used in reference to Johnson multiple times last spring, with Gordon fed up with how his teammate wrested positions away from him on track. That smoldering desire makes Gordon dangerous, and now in a weird twist, the master has a chance to emerge from the pupil’s shadow.
There was massive restructuring within the Hendrick Motorsports organization in the offseason, and Gordon may well have gotten the biggest slice of the pie. He’ll move into a new shop, new cars, and a new team, taking over the former No. 5, which will be renumbered with the 24 that fans have loved to hate for years. That gives Gordon a brilliant crew chief in Alan Gustafson, whose technical knowledge comes at a crucial point in the driver’s career, as he’s struggled with the CoT while Gustafson has thrived. And while Steve Letarte struggled to make the right calls with Gordon, it was Gustafson who kept bad cars competitive last spring with Mark Martin because of some timely track position strategy. Together, this pair could be dangerous.
Their relationship will be put to the test early, especially at the mile-and-a half and larger tracks. Those became deep, dark places where Gordon endured nine finishes of 22nd or worse — some early, promising runs deteriorating into only one top-5 finish on the six Chase intermediates.
Gordon will have a different look to his car as DuPont, primary sponsor for his entire career, scales back to a 14-race deal while the AARP’s Drive to End Hunger comes on board for 22 events. With that deal comes financial security, as all backers are signed through 2013, Gustafson 2014, and Gordon as long as he wants thanks to a lifetime contract.
Most important, Gordon’s changes will distance him from Johnson, a once-close friendship hurt by the mentor ending every year a dutiful bridesmaid. Some might say he’s OK with that, assuming a veteran leadership role at a time when two kids and a beautiful wife leave him partially tuned out. But others believe Gordon’s far from satisfied. And if last year’s frustration carries over, Hendrick’s offseason swap should make this man more motivated than ever.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
It’s far from a foregone conclusion that Gordon’s winning ways are over. “It’s kind of ridiculous to think about a driver who has done what Gordon’s done and then call him the sleeper of the field,” says a rival crew chief. “I think the whole team shuffle at Hendrick is really designed to make the 24 (Gordon) stronger. I think (new crew chief) Alan Gustafson might lift the 24 team up a lot.”
Says another, “Anybody who thinks Gordon has grown complacent is looking at the stats, not him in the car. He’s more aggressive than he was five years ago. He wants it more. He’s just not getting it … yet.”
Looking at Checkers: Can always be counted on for ultra-strong runs at Darlington and Martinsville.
Pretty Solid Pick: Most anywhere, honestly. He’s got 82 career wins, after all.
Good Sleeper Pick: It’s hard to define Gordon as a sleeper, but he hasn’t won a points race at Daytona since 2005 and can still get it done.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Homestead is Super G’s Lex Luthor.
Insider Tip: Gordon has only four wins since the CoT’s introduction in 2007. Gustafson’s input should be the difference.
Top 5s: 11
Top 10s: 17
Laps Led: 919
Laps Completed: 10,545
Lead Lap Finishes: 30
Bonus Points: 115
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 12.7
Average Finish: 13.4
After First 26 Races: 10th
Final Points Standing: 9th
Driver Rating: 98.5 (2nd)