Unpredictable. Unprecedented. Messy. Yet, at times, borderline miraculous. All of these words applied to four-time champion Jeff Gordon in perhaps the craziest season of his career. He almost won a few times. He got wrecked — a lot. He missed the Chase. Then he made the Chase. He was counted out as a contender. Then he made himself one. He won a race, putting himself in position for perhaps NASCAR’s biggest asterisk … only to run 38th and flop the very next week. He limped home sixth in points, his best showing since 2009. And somewhere in there, he was the owner of record on Jimmie Johnson’s championship car, leaving him a 10-time Cup titlist both inside and outside the cockpit.
Yes, that all really happened. Gordon’s 2013 season got off to a roller-coaster start. It seemed as though each week he was either running among the leaders or getting caught up in something in the pack. Sometimes, it was a little of both, leaving the team in desperation mode heading to Richmond in September. Gordon’s last hope for a Chase berth was a “wild card win,” a cause he furthered by winning the pole. But there was no miracle, not enough points; the postseason field was set, and Gordon was on the outside looking in for only the second time in Chase history.
And then all hell broke loose.
Michael Waltrip Racing was caught trying to manipulate the finish at Richmond, meaning that Martin Truex Jr. was out of the playoffs and Ryan Newman was in. But only when questions also arose about a possible deal between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports — designed to give rival Joey Logano a postseason cushion — did NASCAR decide that there was enough doubt about who had really raced their way in. In an unprecedented move, Gordon was added to the field as a 13th entry, just hours before qualifying began for the first Chase race at Chicagoland.
It was then that Gordon finally came alive. He won only once, but he made it clear that he was there, rescuing a season that might otherwise have been the worst of his career. In the end, there wasn’t enough in the tank to win it all, but what he did do was make it clear that the 22-year vet was still hungry, and with a little good luck somewhere, could contend for a fifth title.
How much of that momentum will carry into 2014? It’s hard to say. Gordon will be paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson once again; the pair has six wins over three seasons and has never finished lower than 10th in points together. Both men have a deep respect for one another, yet at one point last season it looked like poor performance would do them in. A heart-to-heart behind the scenes, occurring last July at New Hampshire, was the saving grace that kept them glued together. Gustafson is a technical crew chief, a good mesh for NASCAR’s modern, engineering-focused technology. But where he’s so good on setups, the team often fails on strategy, losing track position in a time when traffic means the difference between fifth and 15th.
Gordon has a lifetime contract with Hendrick, although the clock is ticking. Longtime sponsor Axalta (formerly DuPont) is signed through 2016; AARP is in the final year of its deal, and with Hendrick protégé Chase Elliott rising quickly through the ranks, it’s unclear what the future holds for the relationship. With long-term deals in place for HMS teammates Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, it’s clear what road Elliott will travel to Cup.
Gordon can race as long as he wants, but with four DNFs for wrecks last year (and involvement in a few more), he’s aware of the sport’s physical toll. Add in two young children and the priorities that accompany a family, and it becomes obvious that times have changed for NASCAR’s driver of the ’90s. Expect the retirement question to pop up this season, a potential distraction for what’s been the slowest of Hendrick’s four-car operation. Gordon himself added fuel to that fire before the season even began, telling the media, “If that (fifth title) happened, that would be all the reasons I need to say, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ Go out on a high note.”
That leaves time on the wrong side for Gordon, whose former rival, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won his last title at age 43 — which is how old Gordon will be midseason. The key for Gordon will be the first 10 races, where he has slipped outside the top 10 in points the last two seasons. Struggling out of the box for a third year, against ever-increasing competition, will not be the charm for a legend who’s learned the hard way that there’s a fine line these days between “hanging in” and “hanging on.”
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Gordon showed during the Chase that he can still wheel it,” a rival crew chief says. “And of course he’s in Hendrick equipment. He faced a lot of criticism in 2013, and the resolve inside of him stepped up and made him drive even harder. I think he’s really enjoying showing his kids what Daddy does for a living and sharing victories with them.”
“He’s getting older,” another says. “There aren’t many drivers who’ve won a title after 40 — and he’ll have to go through his teammate to do so. … Gordon hasn’t put together a multiple-win season in years, and honestly, Alan Gustafson hasn’t shown that he can put Gordon in contention for a title very much during his tenure on the box. Surprisingly, the Gen-6 car hasn’t made much of a difference in his performance.”
“It’s hard to imagine Jeff Gordon as an elder statesman, but that’s what he now is in this sport,” a veteran media member says. “We’ve seen other drivers in years gone by assume that role while struggling to continue to pile up wins and championships. At this point in his career, Gordon is more competitive than most of those guys were, but his days of 10-win seasons and titles are over.”
Looking at Checkers: Trophies are liable to come on any track for Gordon — just don’t expect for them to come in bundles anymore.
Pretty Solid Pick: Gordon has scored multiple victories at only one track since 2011: Pocono.
Good Sleeper Pick: In his last 10 starts at Darlington, Gordon has eight finishes of fifth or better with one victory (2007).
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Oddly, his worst track statistically since the advent of the CoT is Watkins Glen, where Gordon has averaged a 22.1-place finish with two top 10s in seven races.
Insider Tip: Eighty-eight career victories, but only 13 in the CoT/Gen-6 era. Assign blame as you will, but understand that he’s not going to net your fantasy team a ton of wins.
No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: AARP “Drive to End Hunger”/Axalta/Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Years with current team: 22
Under contract through: Lifetime
Best points finish: 1st (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001)
Hometown: Vallejo, Calif.
Born: Aug. 4, 1971
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro