In any professional sport, the debate always rages about who is the greatest of all time in that particular sport. That’s what G.O.A.T. stands for, by the way — "Greatest of All Time."The sport of NASCAR is no different about who is the greatest driver of all time. The reality is it’s a debate that will never be settled.
In NASCAR the debate always comes back to The King — Richard Petty — with his 200 wins and his seven NASCAR Cup championships. Then there is Dale Earnhardt with his 76 wins and seven championships. Then, of course, there is Jimmie Johnson who has six championships but, more amazingly, five of those were in a row.
There’s a guy who, for whatever reason, tends to get overlooked in that debate. His name is Jeff Gordon. Sunday’s win at the Brickyard 400 certainly was a wake-up call and a reminder to the whole sport of simply how great a driver he is.
I remember back to November of 1992 at Atlanta. It was the last race of the year. It was The King’s last race. Ironically, it was Jeff Gordon’s first race. One era of our sport was ending and, while some suspected it, no one really was certain that another era of our sport was starting, but it did.
We were in 1993 and Jeff was running his first full Cup season. Rick Hendrick called me early on in like the first third or so of the season and asked, "So what do you think about my young Hot Shoe? "I told Rick I didn’t think the kid was ever going to make it. I mean, seriously, he hit everything but the pace car that year. At the time I thought I was right because he seemed to wreck almost every week. I remember Ray Evernham, who was Jeff’s crew chief back then, telling me that they had to replace something like 13 noses on the cars from where Jeff wrecked. Heck, I remember Jeff leading the all-star race at Charlotte by a large margin with only a few laps to go, but backing it into the fence in the third turn. So I for one was pretty skeptical of his future at the time.
The days of me or anyone else ever being skeptical of Jeff Gordon are long, long gone. The man has four championships. He has 90 wins in 745 starts. Jeff is the winningest driver in the modern era. What I mean by that is, in the very early ’70s when RJ Reynolds became the title sponsor of the Cup series with its Winston brand, it took our sport to a whole new level, and it’s what we called the dawning of the modern era in NASCAR.
The modernization of our sport was across the board. Our schedule went from 64 races down to only like 28 or 30 that first year. We started going to bigger venues. Tracks that remained on the schedule were also updated and modernized. I swear I will never see so much fresh red and white paint — which were the Winston colors — used again at racetracks in my lifetime.
I tell you about Jeff being the winningest driver in the modern era because the reality is no one will ever win 200 races in our sport. We don’t run 64 races at short tracks or dirt tracks anymore. One year Richard Petty won 27 races in a SINGLE season. That simply won’t happen in our sport ever again.
What you can do is look at what we do today, and it sort of compares to what we did at the start of the modern era. Now sure, the cars have changed. So have the rules. The point system has changed and even the way you win a championship is changing, yet again, starting this year. Yet here sits Jeff Gordon since 1993 in his first full season now sitting third on the all-time win list behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson.
Can Jeff win 100 races? I think he could if he wanted to. I think he has to have the "want to"like he did Sunday at Indy. I saw Jeff Gordon drive that car Sunday like nothing or nobody was going to stand in his way. It’s not that he doesn’t want to win every week, but we’re talking about the Brickyard 400 for Heaven’s sakes, and that’s extra special. On that last restart, he set sail, passed his teammate Kasey Kahne and went on to his fifth Brickyard 400 victory. That’s the most of all time. How incredible.
If you go down the list of Jeff’s accomplishments, it is simply mind-numbing. It’s his 17th season with multiple wins. Indianapolis became the 10th track where Jeff has a minimum of five wins. At the Brickyard 400 alone, Jeff has 17 top 10-finishes in 21 races. It’s that type of consistency that makes a champion a champion.
He is now tied in 2014 with his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., with the most top-10 finishes of the season at 14. He is sitting on top of the points lead like he has most of the season, so he is having an incredible year.
I think Jeff made the mistake I did when he reached 40. When I hit that mark I started thinking it was time to slow down. The week in and week out travel of our schedule simply wears on you to the point where you start to question is it worth it. There are demands on you from your sponsors, the media, your race team and, more importantly, your family. Oh by the way, you also have to go race from February to November, too, with only a couple breaks.
I saw Jeff do the same thing I did and that was let the "R" word — as in retirement — creep into the picture and the conversation. Jeff was also experiencing back problems at the time, so you heard him start to mention about not being sure how much longer he wanted to race or even if he felt up to racing. You have to get that out of your mind, and he sure did that Sunday at Indianapolis.
Jeff is only going to be 43 years old here in a few weeks. He’s a young man. He could easily race five, six or seven more years. If he does that, he could easily win 100 races. This could be the start of hot streak for Jeff. He has two wins now. He’s locked in the Chase. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see him in Victory Circle again Sunday at Pocono.
Everything is right in Jeff Gordon’s world. He believes in his team. His team believes in him. I think even more importantly, Jeff has more confidence in himself than he’s had in a long time. He said it himself in his post-race interview that he has it all. He really does. Did you see how happy he was there in Victory Circle with his family?
People ask me all the time who the leader and voice is in the garage area. I tell them I don’t know, but I know who it should be. It should be Jeff Gordon. He’s earned it. He has that clout. He can command the attention in the garage area a leader should command.
So my point with all this is when you stop and look at what he did Sunday winning his fifth Brickyard 400, combined with every other accomplishment he has achieved, Jeff Gordon really might be the greatest driver of all time.
Sunday showed yet again there should be no "R" word spoken about Jeff Gordon. He has a lot of wins left in him. I would love to see him go for 100 wins. I’d love for him to win seven championships. He can do it. After what he did Sunday, I and all his fans believe he can.
Of course the other big news in addition to Jeff’s record-setting performance at Indianapolis was the announcement Sunday morning by Roush Fenway Racing that Carl Edwards would not be with the team next season. The announcement itself really isn’t a surprise to anyone, but the timing of it on race day sure was.
We already know he won’t be back in a Ford next year, so I don’t think it will come as any big surprise when you hear an announcement come down the pike that Carl will be joining Joe Gibbs Racing next year in a fourth Gibbs car.
Of course the irony there is on the heels of the Brickyard 400 comes the other announcement by NASCAR that they have penalized the No. 11 team. Penalized might be an understatement. Maybe saying they came down on them like a ton of bricks might be more appropriate. A post-race inspection issue was found with the rear firewall block-off plates on Hamlin’s car.
NASCAR threw the book at them, classifying it as a P5 violation which is the worst you can receive. We’re talking about a $125,000 fine. It also comes with a 75 driver and owner point loss. Crew chief Darian Grubb has been suspended from NASCAR for the next six series championship events. Darian will also be on NASCAR probation for the next six months. In addition to all that they also lost, car chief Wesley Sherrill has been suspended from NASCAR for the next six series championship events. This is huge.
You can plan on the Gibbs folks appealing it, which will also be an interesting process to watch because of the new appeal board and appellate officer. It sure sounds like a pretty serious penalty for the crime. It’s kind of been my opinion through the years that the punishment never fits the crime, so we’ll see how this all plays out. I feel bad for Denny and for the folks at JGR because they were coming off a great second-, third- and fourth-place finish by their three cars.
So the No. 11 camp will definitely be scrambling to get folks in place as everyone heads back for our second trip to Pocono in 2014. There are a lot of similarities to racing at the Brickyard when you race at Pocono, so don’t be surprised to see the same folks out front again Sunday. Like I said earlier, you also better not be surprised if you see that No. 24 pull into Victory Circle, again, because Jeff Gordon is red-hot.
VIDEO: Jeff Gordon supports Riley Hospital for Children