The Racing Capital
of the World
Jul 26, 2015
February 17, 2014 | By Bruce Martin
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There isn’t much left that Jeff Gordon hasn’t accomplished in his glorious NASCAR career. His accomplishments have solidified him as one of the true legends of the sport beginning with a victory in the Inaugural Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994.
That win in the first-ever NASCAR race at the famed Brickyard was the first of Gordon’s four wins at the “World’s Most Famous Race Course.” Gordon would also win four NASCAR Cup titles and an incredible 88 Cup victories – three of those coming in the Daytona 500.
Gordon is attempting to go “Four for Four” when it comes to NASCAR’s biggest prizes as the driver who spent formative years in Pittsboro, Ind., attempts to win the Daytona 500 for the fourth time in his career.
Gordon’s Daytona 500 wins came in 1997, 1999 and 2005, but since his last checkered flag in NASCAR’s big race he has just one top-10 finish in the Daytona 500.
Since his 2005 victory, Gordon has finished 26th, 10th, 39th, 13th, 26th, 28th, 40th and 20th last year.
That is a trend Gordon wants to change in Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500. And if the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is able to win at Daytona it will automatically qualify him for the new 16-driver “Chase Grid” – a major change NASCAR has made in the “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.”
Gordon has already said if he were to win another NASCAR championship he would probably retire as a driver. While some thought he may have been joking with that comment, the driver actually said it’s a serious consideration.
“It’s probably more serious,” Gordon said. “If I win the championship this year, I've put in 20-plus great years. I do this now because I love it, because I like being competitive, and because I want another championship. I want to get a Sprint Cup championship.
“I go home and I look at my trophy room. I see four trophies, championship trophies. But they say Winston Cup on them. You can name me a four-time Sprint Cup champion for technical reasons all you want, but to me I'm still not. I want that before my career's over.
“If that happened, that would be all the reasons I need to say, ‘This is it, I'm done.’ I could go out on a high note and start playing baseball.”
Don’t expect Gordon to start a new career like basketball legend Michael Jordan attempted when he initially retired from the NBA in 1993 and began a less-than-stellar effort in the Chicago White Sox minor league system before returning to the NBA.
Gordon turns 43 on August 4, and while that is still considered young for a race driver, one more championship would give Gordon an opportunity that all drivers want for the end of their career – to go out as a winner.
And if he were to start off the season with a win at the Daytona 500, it would be the first big step in NASCAR’s season of change. Those changes include a new IndyCar-style qualification format beginning with the next race at Phoenix where all cars will be on track at the same time for the first 30-minutes in a “knockout” qualification system. In addition to that, and the elimination rounds of “The Chase,” which will conclude with four-drivers in a “first to the finish” championship format and a new penalty structure, there is a lot to take in for the 2014 season.
“I like the direction and changes that have been made,” Gordon said. “You brought up the penalties. I think that's a structure that's needed to take place for a while now. So I think if you have something that makes sense, why wait just because you've made other changes? So go ahead and incorporate that into there. We'll adjust, we'll deal with it. It's going to take some time to work through it for NASCAR, as well as for the competitors.
“The same thing with qualifying. I feel like we needed to do that a few years ago. When F1 started doing it, I was instantly a huge fan and said, Man, I wish we had this. I love that they're incorporating that.
“Then there's a few little tweaks that probably are going to need to happen with that as well. I was real happy to see them being open-minded, and them recognizing some things that needed to be done, and they did that.”
The biggest change of all, however, will come with the points. The emphasis is now placed on victories instead of consistent finishes because that is what will get a driver in the Chase. Ideally, in simplified form, if there are 16 drivers that won a race and each driver is in the top 30 in points they are automatically in The Chase.
“The points I like it as well,” Gordon said. “I think the thing that stood out to me in the conversations that I had with NASCAR that really resonated was when the driver gets out of the car and said, ‘Well, you know, third place today, it was a good points day.’ That just doesn't sit well with anybody, not even us. We don't want to say that. We don't want to say anything other than, ‘We won.’ If we didn't win, that was not a good day.
“It's win or nothing. That's the attitude you want to have.
“It's not necessarily the reality, but getting us closer to that I think is important. I think this takes us that next step towards that, how important it is to win and the intensity level that's going to be created from qualifying for all of us, crew chiefs, drivers, teams, as well as, you know, the importance of winning to get in and how important it's going to be to compete at a high level and winning throughout the Chase.”
While many of these changes may not have been universally embraced by drivers or fans, there is strong evidence that add all the changes together and it will attract more eyes to NASCAR races both at the track and on television.
And for those who initially complained, Gordon believes they will continue to watch.
“I believe that for all those that are complaining about it and saying they don't like it or will never watch another race, they'll be tuned in, okay? It's the ones that aren't saying anything that you're trying to grasp,” Gordon said. “I have a lot of friends, like in New York, that are casual fans, and they're talking to me about it. I think they've already made an impact and I think there's a lot of interest around the things that they've announced. I think that interest is only going to get greater once we go through a couple of those qualifying sessions and go through one year of this points system.”
Gordon also loves the new qualification format – one that is quite similar to both IndyCar and Formula One because it features knockout rounds.
“I'm a big fan of Formula One,” Gordon admitted. “I watch it, especially qualifying. I watch it very closely. One of the challenges that they have is trying not to block. They don't always do it intentionally. It's unintentional most of the time. Sometimes it's, I'll slowly get out of the way. There's some judgment calls there. They only have 22 cars out there and we have 43.
“There's going to be weekends like Martinsville where if the conditions are right, the sun is coming, there's a cloud, everybody is going to want to be out there on the track and you're not going to get a clean lap.
I think for somebody who's young, it's going to be respecting the competitors and knowing how to best make your lap happen, and then not get in the way of somebody else's lap. That's going to be true for the veterans as well. I think we're experienced at doing those qualifying runs in practice where we don't pull up on the track in front of somebody.
“It's not sometimes the drivers, it's the spotters as well that are playing a big role in that.”
When it comes to the Chase, this year’s NASCAR season will feature five elimination rounds. The first will come at Richmond in the 26th race of the season that will finalize the 16 drivers on the Chase grid. After that, following the third Chase race, the Chase Grid will be left with 12 drivers. After the sixth Chase race, the field will drop to eight drivers, and following the ninth Chase race, only four drivers will remain in championship contention for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
For the driver that survives all of the elimination rounds, it will be a very strong feeling of satisfaction to win that championship.
“If you're leading the points, you're going to move on, right? You don't necessarily have to win a race, but you still have to compete at a high level,” Gordon explained. “I still think the best team is going to win this championship, just like they have back before they made the points change to the Chase, and since they made the points change to the Chase. In the future, whatever points system is in place, I still think the best team is going to win.
“The best teams know how to put themselves in position to have things go their way. I'm a big believer in if you're that talented, you're that good, you communicate that well, you have the resources, you're going to find a way, no matter what the system is, to rise to the top.”
Although this new points system puts greater emphasis on winning, Gordon said it’s in a race driver’s DNA to win races, so that part won’t change. But it may drastically change the strategy of each race.
“You have to understand the mentality of a race car driver is win -- you don't have to dangle a carrot out in front of us,” Gordon said. “With double-file restarts, closing laps, let's say a guy is leading by two or three seconds when the caution comes out, you have this new life in you that, I can win this race. By the way, that win can lock me into the Chase pretty much.
“There's guys that are going to have just that thought on their mind, and that's going to make you take a few more risks and push just a little bit harder because a win now has become more important than it was before.
“So I don't think you necessarily want to just say, I'm going to wreck it, it's either a win or bring it back on the wrecker. I might not have that approach, but some guys might. You got to weigh that out.
“The risk versus reward is what it's always been about. And the reward for being consistent was very high in previous points systems. The reward for taking more risk is now greater, so guys are going to take more risk.”
And one of the biggest risks may be with fuel mileage. If points are no longer the over-riding factor and wins have more impact, then expect to see plenty of teams take the bold gamble to stretch their fuel mileage. For those that fail, look for cars to run out of gas on the track.
“You will see more people running out of fuel,” Gordon predicted. “You'll see, I think, a little bit more bumping and banging on restarts and closing laps. The cars are still really stuck to the racetrack. That aspect is a little bit unknown.
“But definitely, this heightens things up a bit.”
It all begins with Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500, and if this is going to be Gordon’s championship season, a fourth victory in the 500 could be the beginningof his “Farewell Tour” if he goes on to win the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.