COMMENTARY | Reaching 700 starts is big in NASCAR.
If you've made it to that number of races (especially consecutively like Jeff Gordon), you've no doubt had a storied career.
And when you mark that 700th start by getting another top-5, to reach 300 top-5s in your 700 races, that's pretty impressive.
That's just what Jeff Gordon did at Darlington, and he reminded us yet again that while he may not be the dominant driver he once was, he's still Jeff Gordon and the competition on track may soon see him approaching in their rearview as he moves to the front each week.
Looking back on those 700 races, Gordon has 87 wins, 417 top-10s and 72 pole positions.
He has run over 200,000 laps, led more than 23,000 of them, earned a whopping 132 million from racing purses (though his ex-wife probably got a little bit of that a few years back). He's been running at the finish of 605 of those starts (an average of about 5 DNFs per season), and has 499 lead lap finishes in that time span.
Looking at those stats, it's clear to see that Jeff Gordon is a Hall of Famer, whatever he does from this point on (and I don't see him racing for more than a couple more years -- he's got four championships and sure doesn't need the money at this point).
The question becomes where does he rank in the hierarchy of NASCAR legends. Obviously, he is the biggest star of the past twenty years. Even though he hasn't been winning much in recent years, Jeff
Gordon is still one of the first names people thing of in connection to current-day NASCAR, even moreso than "5-time" Jimmie Johnson to some extent.
Face of NASCARAs the sport grew bigger in the 1990s, Jeff Gordon was THE face of NASCAR, and that's not an exaggeration. He stormed onto the scene with his little mustache as a very young man in Atlanta in 1992, and the camera never stopped rolling on him from that point forward. The young kid took out veterans like Earnhardt on his way to claiming win after win and title after title.
Everyone talks now about how dominant Hendrick Motorsports has been in recent years in NASCAR, but until Jeff Gordon showed up the team was not dominant. He's the driving force that got that ball rolling and made Hendrick Motorsports what it is today. Without Gordon before him at Hendrick, there is no Jimmie Johnson dynasty.
He was young and clean-cut, the opposite of good-old-boy Earnhardt, and he polarized the sport into two camps -- Earnhardt people and Gordon people. The Earnhardt fans hated Jeff Gordon back in the 1990s and early 2000s. It wasn't just dislike, it was hatred, and it extended to the fans.
It was to the point where if you were camping out at the racetracks and you were wearing Gordon's rainbow-colored gear, you were pretty much sending out an invitation to be harassed by Gordon haters.
The guy just wouldn't stop winning for many, many years. Even when he didn't take home the title in that stretch, he was always up front and competing for wins. He won his titles before the Chase, but he was so dominant it wouldn't have changed anything. He still would have run away with the titles, and possibly gotten even more. He was that good.
Since then, things have calmed down a little bit for Gordon. He was eclipsed on track by his young protege Jimmie Johnson starting in the early 2000s and no longer contends like he used to for titles. The hatred that was once reserved for Gordon has been transferred to others, such as Johnson and Kyle Busch.
Gordon vs. the greatsWhen the big history book of NASCAR is complete, where will Gordon rank?
If we're talking numbers, he only trails Richard Petty and David Pearson in wins, and those aren't really fair comparisons anyway. Due to the way schedules were when his career began, Petty drove a whole lot more races than Gordon did (In the year 1961, for example, he ran a whopping 61 races). And the competition wasn't as equal as today, with Petty's equipment often dominating the competition for much of his career. But Petty's winning percentage is about 5 percent higher than Jeff's, and he'll always be the King.
Dale Earnhardt, like Petty, took home seven Cup titles. And while he has 11 less wins than Gordon, the Intimidator's driving ability was the stuff of legend and hard for anyone to compare to. He has his own very dominant stretch, winning four titles between 1990 and 1994 (with Alan Kulwicki claiming the 1992 title in the middle), and overall I'd say Earnhardt will be more highly regarded than Gordon in the history books.
A third driver I'd place ahead of Gordon is David Pearson, my personal choice for the greatest driver of all time. He didn't run as many races as Petty, but has a better winning percentage and most definitely would have taken some of Petty's 200 wins away if he had decided to run more regularly in Cup.
So having said all that, in my eyes Gordon is at best the fourth-best driver in NASCAR's history, and it's possible Jimmie Johnson or other younger drivers will pass him when all is said and done, but there's a whole different way to look at this: Impact on the sport.
Impact on the sportIf we put the stats aside for a minute, let's just think about how each driver has transformed the sport.
Petty was the face of the sport from a young age, but back then it was largely a regional sport and the rest of the world didn't care about NASCAR. Pearson was a shy man who stayed away from the media, so he's not really involved in this area of discussion.
That leaves Earnhardt and Gordon, and I'd say the two of them have had the most impact on the sport as a whole.
Earnhardt became the first real superstar of the sport in the mainstream media. He was a character who people liked to watch even if they didn't like racing that much; he made the whole merchandise aspect of NASCAR a big thing when it hadn't been before; he got butts in the seats, as they say, from the early 1980s into the 1990s, and got the ball rolling in terms of making NASCAR a respected and popular sport across America.
Then came Gordon, who took the lessons of Earnhardt and moved them to the next level. While he was getting all those titles for Rick Hendrick, he was expanding the reach of NASCAR to levels Richard Petty never dreamed of back in the 1960s and 1970s. Gordon's clean-cut and distinctly non-Southern look brought in soccer moms and kids and a whole bunch of people who never thought of watching NASCAR before he showed up. The monster TV deals with FOX and other networks that started in 2001 would never have been possible without the arrival in the 1990s of Jeff Gordon to the sport.
Bottom lineJeff Gordon's career is winding down, and when he looks back at what he's done, he has to be pretty pleased. Four titles is plenty good, and there's still a potential to add more.
87 wins is a number most drivers today can only dream of (Jimmie Johnson could reach it, but I don't see anyone else doing it, not even Kyle Busch).
And beyond all of those numbers, when historians look back at the names of drivers who transformed the sport over the years, Jeff Gordon's name will be at or near the top of that list -- and that's the biggest accolade any athlete can hope for.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu
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