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The man with the best NASCAR season in modern history is considered one of the best drivers ever. And, somehow, his career is also a significant NASCAR “what if?”
Jeff Gordon’s 1998 season was absolutely dominant. And it came after Gordon had been the best driver in the Cup Series over the previous three seasons. Before his 1998 season, Gordon had won two of the previous three titles and recorded 27 wins and a crazy 60 top-five finishes in 94 races.
Somehow, Gordon got even better in 1998. Gordon won a whopping 13 of 33 races and finished in the top 10 on 28 different occasions. His average finish of 5.7 is a modern era record.
Gordon’s summer is also the gold NASCAR standard. Just take a look at this insanity from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend.
Charlotte (May 24): 1st
Dover (May 31): 3rd
Richmond (June 6): 37th
Michigan (June 14): 3rd
Pocono (June 21): 2nd
Sonoma (June 28): 1st
New Hampshire (July 12): 3rd
Pocono (July 26): 1st
Indianapolis (Aug. 1): 1st
Watkins Glen (Aug. 9): 1st
Michigan (Aug. 16): 1st
Bristol (Aug. 22): 5th
New Hampshire (Aug. 30): 1st
Darlington (Sept. 6): 1st
Yes, that’s eight wins in 14 races and top-five finishes in 13 of 14 races. Throw out that 37th at Richmond and Gordon’s summer average finish was a wild 1.85. Even with the 37th-place finish it’s still a crazy good 4.35. No one is going to have another NASCAR season as good as Gordon’s 1998.
Here’s where we get to that “what if?” Gordon is a four-time Cup Series champion. Only Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty, all seven-time champions, have more titles.
Gordon could be closer to those drivers if there wasn’t a playoff format.
All four of Gordon’s titles came before NASCAR implemented the playoffs in 2004. That season, Gordon entered the playoffs with the points lead both after a points reset and through a cumulative tally over the first 26 races.
Gordon finished third that season, though he scored the most points of any driver through all 36 races. It wasn’t the first time that happened.
In 2007, Gordon was awesome. He won six races and finished in the top 10 in 30 of 36 races. He didn’t finish any lower than 11th during any of the 10 playoff races. It still wasn’t enough. Johnson, his teammate, was better. Gordon scored the most points throughout all 36 races, but Johnson had the most during the 10 playoff races and won his second straight title.
The playoff format changed in 2014 as NASCAR moved to a 16-driver elimination format with a winner-take-all season finale. The elimination format introduced much shorter playoff sample sizes and drivers could advance to the next round with a win in a current round.
The format didn’t do anything to ruin Gordon’s history of season-long excellence. While Kevin Harvick won the title over Ryan Newman that season, Gordon scored the most points of any driver over the season’s 36 races.
It’s a stretch to say that Gordon would have seven titles like Earnhardt, Johnson and Petty had NASCAR not introduced the playoff format in an ill-fated bid to challenge the NFL in the mid-2000s. Teams raced differently in the playoffs, especially in the first seasons of the elimination playoff format.
But it’s not a stretch at all to think that had NASCAR kept its season-long points format that Gordon would have at least one more title.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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