Preseason Rank: 7
Jeff Gordon is one of those drivers you can never count out of a race or a championship until the fat lady is on stage and starts singing. “Wonderboy” no longer (although the young drivers entering the sport today have Gordon to thank for helping pave the way), Gordon, at age 40, is now one of the Sprint Cup Series’ most respected veterans. And while he’s no longer winning at the clip he did a decade ago, don’t be fooled into believing that it’s because he’s lost a step. If anything, it’s because the sport, through its myriad of recent changes, has caught up to him, which is a continuing challenge he’ll tackle again in 2012.
Not that he has anything left to prove. Even if Gordon never wins again, the future Hall of Famer has long since sealed his place in NASCAR history: Only two drivers, Richard Petty and David Pearson, have more victories on the sport’s elite circuit. Only three — Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson — can call themselves “champion” more times. What makes him such a great asset to Hendrick Motorsports, though, is this veteran’s versatility. The only Cup tracks that have not yielded a victory to Gordon are Homestead and the newly added Kentucky Speedway. He also has multiple top 5s at every track with the lone exception of Kentucky. Gordon knows how to run each one, changing a line a fraction to coax the last bit of speed from a racecar. There is no place in the series where he is not a threat to win.
So Gordon’s weakness entering 2012 isn’t his ability or age; it’s the playoff format. For some reason, Gordon has never been able to work the Chase to his advantage, an Achilles’ heel in preventing a fifth title when he’d have six under the former system. It isn’t that Gordon struggles at the Chase tracks — he has 31 career wins at those venues. But he hasn’t been able to recalibrate and place more emphasis on the final 10 races instead of wasting too much energy on the regular season. That “old school” approach of treating every race equally will have to change if Gordon is to battle the regular-season “test session” that happens every year among his main rivals.
On the plus side, his No. 24 team enters this season intact. Crew chief Alan Gustafson, who came to Gordon last year, is a highly technical crew chief, and the duo proved a formidable combination. Sponsorship, from AARP’s Drive to End Hunger, DuPont and Pepsi, comprises one of the better funding situations in the entire sport. And when this bunch gets the car right in any race, Gordon can do the rest. Hendrick chassis and engines are responsible for the last six championships, so the best of the best remains at his disposal.
There is one change at Hendrick Motorsports that could prove a boon, especially to Gordon. There have been very few crew chief hirings from outside the organization, with Tony Eury Jr. being the last to come over in a package deal with Dale Earnhardt Jr. But that all changes in 2012 when Kasey Kahne joins the organization and brings crew chief Kenny Francis with him. Kahne and Francis will share a shop with Gordon and Gustafson, bringing fresh ideas that could be a huge bonus for a Hendrick stable that was somewhat stagnant in 2011. While the organization had five wins, it did not place a driver in the top 5 in points for the first time in a decade. Race strategies and setups seemed a little conservative last year, and new blood could be key to producing needed innovation.
It’s hard to call 2012 a now or never year for Gordon, as a three-win season in 2011 proves he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But after a full decade since his last title, this Rainbow Warrior must know he’s running out of chances. In order to make things happen this year, he needs fresh strategy coupled with the ability, as a unit, for his team to take the Chase by storm. That’s what it takes. Can the original Four-Time, with protégé Johnson knocked off his title perch, finally capitalize?
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
The storied veteran shows no signs of slowing down; instead, Gordon continues to improve and contend for wins. Both on and off the track, Gordon is a great ambassador for the sport and a future Hall of Famer.
“He just gets it,” says a member of the media. “From sponsors to fans to media, this guy sets the standard for professionalism.”
Working with crew chief Alan Gustafson for the first time in 2011, Gordon was able to win races and looked to be a threat at the outset of the Chase.
“Jeff, no matter what, still has four championship trophies on the wall that say, ‘I’m the Man.’ And the Drive to End Hunger starts with the drive to win a fifth title in 2012,” says another insider. “Look for him to have one other change, too — that being who chirps in his ear from the spotter stand.”
Top 5s: 13
Top 10s: 18
Laps Led: 922
Laps Completed: 10,421
Lead Lap Finishes: 27
Bonus Points: 35
Races Led: 22
Average Start: 14.4
Average Finish: 13.0
After First 26 Races: 3rd
Final Points Standing: 8th
Driver Rating: 96.5 (5th)
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