Jeff Gordon’s season was lost in a matter of moments — but boy, what a season it was. His four wins were the most he had posted in a single year since his dominant 2007 campaign, and his 10.4 average finish was the best among all drivers in 2014. Gordon, who turned 43 years old in August, looked more like the driver of his youth than he has in nearly a decade.
It was a cut tire at Texas that cost Gordon his championship chance, as he rubbed fenders while fighting for the lead. But what made Gordon a contender in the first place was that he was a threat to win almost anywhere. From short tracks to road courses to superspeedways, the No. 24 team was fighting for victories virtually every time they dropped the green. That versatility has been a hallmark of Gordon’s career; he doesn’t have a weakness in terms of racetracks. He has wins on every track he’s visited as a Sprint Cup driver with the lone exception of Kentucky Speedway, which was only added to the schedule four seasons ago.
Throughout his career, Gordon has enjoyed remarkable stability, and nothing has changed for the four-time champion entering 2015. Gordon has driven his entire career for Hendrick Motorsports, an organization with more than 200 Cup wins and 11 championships; it had 31 and 0, respectively, when he joined the fold for 1993.
Gordon announced in late January that 2015 would be his last season as a full-time driver behind the wheel of the No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports. With this the final 36-race season for Gordon, there's plenty of added pressure for this team to send the Indiana native out as a champion. Chase Elliott will replace Gordon next season as a full-time driver for Hendrick Motorsports.
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Gordon’s equipment remains a step ahead of the competition with the cash to stay there. Gordon finished every race in 2014, a testament to the durability of his No. 24 cars. Hendrick horsepower is some of the best in the business, and it’s likely that new rules changes will play to the strengths of this organization. Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, is typically the best at finding solutions, and that information will filter down to the Hendrick shops.
One area that won’t be a problem is financial backing. Axalta Coating Systems, primary sponsor for 10 races this year, bought out DuPont’s automotive paint division a few years ago. DuPont was Gordon’s first Sprint Cup sponsor, now on the car for 20-plus years. Few drivers have enjoyed that kind of loyalty from a backer. Also returning are AARP’s Drive to End Hunger (13 races), Pepsi (two races), and Panasonic (two races). Rounding out the sponsorship will be 3M, on board for 11 events.
Gordon’s team remains intact with crew chief Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Gordon’s pit crew was strong in 2014, and Gustafson knows how to come to the track prepared. In-race, the two work well together; Gustafson is more of a technical guy than a coach, and that fits Gordon, who doesn’t need a cheerleader but rather a crew chief who can take feedback and turn it into performance.
If there’s a question mark for 2015, it’s Gordon’s health. The driver has been plagued by back problems for years, and while he’s driven through them, there have been times when he hasn’t looked like the aggressive, skilled driver who has racked up more than 90 career wins.
Another roadblock for Gordon has been the Chase system, which he has never been able to master. Without these changes to the postseason format, it’s widely speculated that Gordon would have seven Cup titles in hand; he earned the most points under a season-long format in 2004, ’07, and ’14. There are other variables there, but the fact remains that the titles have eluded Gordon under NASCAR’s playoff system. Some might say he’s not aggressive enough; even after Texas, Gordon could have advanced to the Final Four at Phoenix, but he failed to rough up Kevin Harvick down the stretch.
Whether or not he wins another championship, Gordon has earned his place as the best of his era. He’ll be worth watching this year for another reason, too. Sitting eight victories shy of 100 career Cup wins, he’d be the first to hit the century mark entirely inside the sport’s modern era. He won’t likely get there this season, but as he approaches triple digits, expect the old fire to ignite. The chances for title No. 5 are running out for Gordon, who knows he can’t let another season like 2014 just slip away.
The planets aligned Gordon averaged a single-digit running position in 25 of 36 races in 2014, up from 15 in 2013. His focus on winning the title and a rules change that catered to drivers with a preference for tight-handling cars played into Gordon’s favor last year. It’s no guarantee that everything will just fall into place for him again this season.
Hendrick horsepower The summer stretch of the schedule caters to powerful engines, and Gordon benefited from having Hendrick power plants last year, winning at 2.5-mile Indianapolis and two-mile Michigan. He’s a good bet to shine again at these facilities. He averaged a 5.8-place finish at non-restrictor plate tracks two miles or longer.
Plate track problems His worst track type is the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. He averaged a finish of 20.3 in the point-paying races there last year.
No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: AARP/Drive To End Hunger, 3M, Axalta, PepsiMax, Panasonic
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Year With Current Team: 23rd
Under Contract Through: Lifetime
Best Points Finish: 1st (Four Times)
Hometown: Pittsboro, Ind.
Born: Aug. 4, 1971
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.