Previews, predictions and stats for Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team
Jeff Gordon enters his 21st year of Sprint Cup competition in 2013, and the driver once dubbed “Wonder Boy” has become one of the sport’s elder statesmen — though at 41, he’s hardly an old man. Still, with each passing year, it becomes more difficult for Gordon to add to his tally of four Cup titles, all of which are now more than a decade in the past. Once considered a shoo-in to challenge the record of seven set by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, the driver who defined an era now would simply be happy to get to five. Only six men — but none since Dale Jarrett in 1999 — have won Cup titles at Gordon’s age or older.
But despite this ever-lengthening title drought and mounting disappointment, the No. 24 team can’t ever be counted out. Gordon, the winningest active driver and third on the all-time wins list in NASCAR’s top series, is a certain Hall of Famer who’s highly competitive. He’d probably have six titles if not for NASCAR ushering in the Chase era and could have easily won five or six races last year. Yes, he’s not the same driver who won 13 races in 1998, perhaps the most dominant season in the modern era, but he’s not ready for a nursing home, either.
Top-tier equipment is never an issue, especially when the logo on the car reads “Hendrick Motorsports.” With a lifetime contract, Gordon doesn’t have to worry about the distraction of negotiations. The No. 24 is his baby — has been since 1992 and will be as long as he chooses to drive. Hendrick equipment is responsible for six of the last seven Cup championships and is known for its durability, as only two of Gordon’s five DNFs last year were caused by mechanical failures. Team owner Rick Hendrick has 209 Cup wins to date, second only to the Petty empire’s 287 as an owner, and could realistically break that record this decade. Sponsorship is not a worry for the No. 24 this year, with AARP’s “Drive to End Hunger” back as primary sponsor for 22 races. DuPont (re-branded as Axalta) and Pepsi will cover the remaining events.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson has been a good match for Gordon. Gustafson is more technical than tactical, and that suits the driver well at this point. Gordon’s one weakness, early in his career, was a relative lack of mechanical knowledge. But it’s the norm now for drivers not to be crewmen, and Gordon has years of experience in feeling what his car is doing. Gustafson has been able to take that information and translate it into engineering excellence, a throwback to the days of Ray Evernham. Being in the same shop with Kasey Kahne and Kenny Francis in 2012 was also a bonus for both. The energy of Francis, combined with the youth of Kahne — whose driving style is similar to Gordon’s — brought fresh ideas that invigorated that side of the HMS campus.
But that excitement, which has ramped up Gordon’s competitiveness, has the superstar dealing with the fallout — and frustration — of his place in the pecking order. Hendrick’s four in-house teams have open access to each other’s setup notes, something that’s still a rarity even in an era when competitive teams have two or more cars. That teamwork has privately tortured Gordon. Jimmie Johnson, in particular, has often used the No. 24’s notes to blow right by it on race day. HMS understands the benefits, giving the organization an edge over teams where secrets are closely and jealously guarded. However, that equality amongst competition, after years of Gordon being No. 1 on the totem pole, has taken a toll.
The Clint Bowyer brawl, while understandable after their many on-track incidents, was the latest example of Gordon’s temper in recent years — a tirade aimed at Johnson and a fight with Jeff Burton in 2010 come to mind. Bowyer, in particular, is not over the disaster at Phoenix that partially destroyed Gordon’s hard-earned reputation of being the consummate sportsman.
That means, for Gordon, 2013 will still be an uphill battle, despite having the finest equipment and crew in the business and plenty of money. A fifth title isn’t completely out of reach, but in order to get there, he’ll have to beat the odds as well as the competition.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Gordon is still a force to be reckoned — one who is capable of winning a fifth title, though the clock is ticking.
“I think he can still win another championship,” one crew chief says. “Some bad luck last year got him behind in the Chase, but another championship is not out of the question. A little bit of good luck rather than the bad luck he’s been having could make all the difference.
“There were some races last year where he was the best car at times, even more so than Brad (Keselowski) and Jimmie (Johnson). He just had some bad luck on some races that he should have sealed. He very easily could have won four or five races instead of two.”
Another rival views Gordon differently than he once did. Last season’s Clint Bowyer incident has a lot to do with that.
“I’m a Jeff Gordon fan and was a long time ago, but now that I race against him ... not so much anymore.”
“A total professional,” one media member counters. “I’ve seen Gordon do things behind the scenes — interacting with children, taking time with fans — that never get publicized. He just gets it. There are a few drivers that could take lessons from him.”
Looking at Checkers: The 24 team can contend on any type of track, but there’s something about Martinsville that alway finds it at or near the lead when the money’s to be paid.
Pretty Solid Pick: Most anywhere, but Darlington, Pocono and any 1.5-mile quad oval should be mentioned.
Good Sleeper Pick: His 7.5-place average in two Kentucky starts makes up for the fact that it is the only Cup facility where he has yet to win.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: His worst average finish (16.8) is at Talladega, but we all know that’s not due to him being a poor plate racer.
Insider Tip: At this point in his career, Gordon will (still) net your fantasy team 11-to-15 top 5s and 17-to-20 top 10s per season. Throw in two or three wins, and he remains more serviceable than most.
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