From 1995 to 2001, Jeff Gordon was the man to beat in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. During this time period he accumulated stats that are comparable to any driver in the history of the sport.
In this seven year stretch he amassed 56 wins, 133 top fives, 165 top tens, 37 poles and, last but not least, four series championships. His best year coming in 1998, where he scored a career high 13 wins.
Of course, with all of this success, came the hatred from many race fans. Especially since this seemed to signal a changing of the guard from the legendary Dale Earnhardt, who was the iconic representative of the blue collar southerner, to this new, clean-cut kid from Indiana.
One reason for the success of Jeff Gordon, other than his obvious talent behind the wheel, was Ray Evernham. Evernham was Gordon’s crew chief through the glory days. The man behind the decision of bolt turned on the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets.
Evernham seemed invincible on top of the pit box. Strategy appeared to be his second nature. Then, of course, there was the infamous T-Rex car he entered in the All-Star race. NASCAR instructed him to never bring that back to the track and to this day, very few people really know what was in that car that made it so fast.
The most important thing that Gordon and Evernham had was not that fast cars, and split second decisions on pit strategy, or even the countless hours spent creating new ways to outpace the ever increasing competition of NASCAR’s premier series – it was the chemistry – the magic.
Gordon and Evernham, “spoke the same language”. Many times it seemed that Ray knew what Jeff needed before Jeff did. They had that rare magic that many teams and duos only dream of. They were the 27 Yankees, the 72 Dolphins, or the 96 Bulls. We have only seen a few times in the history of NASCAR. The domination of Inman and Petty comes to mind, and of course, Knauss and Johnson.
After the departure of Evernham from Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon’s success was more like a mere mortal. Though for the next couple years he ran well, and managed a championship under the direction of Robbie Loomis, he didn’t have that ability to dominate like he did with Evernham.
One could argue that the team was still riding the wave of success that Evernham had created. They were still using ideas and technology that was designed by Evernham. As the sport evolved, however, victory lane became harder and harder to find.
Steve Letarte was able to regain some success with Gordon, but disaster struck in 2008 as Gordon went winless. We began to hear rumblings from fans that Gordon was washed up, or his heart wasn’t in it, or maybe he was just ready to retire and live out his days with his supermodel wife.
In 2011, there was a personnel shake-up at Hendrick. Crew chiefs and other team members were moved around. Gordon would now have to get to know a new crew chief, Alan Gustafson.
Gustafson had been working for Hendrick for several years, and took his turn atop the pit box for Kyle Busch, and Mark Martin. Now, he was charged with trying to get Gordon back to championship format. Problem is, were the critics right, was his heart still in it? Did he still have the ability to drive at the level he did before? After all, it had been ten years since his last championship and 13 years since his iconic 1998 season.
Gustafson was up to the challenge. After going winless for the second time in his career in 2010, Gordon visited victory lane three times in 2011. He followed that up with two wins in 2012, and one in 2013. It was then when the sharks began to circle once again. Maybe it was time for another crew chief? Maybe he should just retire. He has back issues that prevents him from racing hard. These are the rumors that were swirling.
One thing that always gave a person doubt that any of this were true was something Ray Evernham said at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the spring of 2014. He was meeting with media members just outside of the media center in somewhat of an impromptu press conference. Ray had just rejoined Hendrick Motorsports as a consultant.
He was asked by many about what was wrong with Gordon. He told stories of how tough Gordon is. How he won a race once, and when he got out of the car, he had a hole in the center of his hand. The pain of gripping the wheel must have been unbearable, but Gordon stayed strong.
He also praised the ability of Gustafson. He seemed to think he was the right man for the job. As the season has progressed, it seems he was right.
Gordon has been strong this season. But, he seemed different somehow around the halfway mark of 2014. He seemed more confident. He was running strong, finishing races, and competing for wins. He has more bounce in his step and he constantly brags about his team. Gordon one again looks like the Gordon of the late 1990’s.
He is proving that he can still drive a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car. He is a threat to win every week. Always near the top of the speed charts in practice and qualifying and he is doing it on many different types of tracks. He is also the current series points leader, has already visited victory lane three times and is locked into the post season Chase for the Championship.
Of course, many believe the difference was the return of Ray Evernham to the organization. He must have walked in a saved the day. Not true, says Evernham. In a recent interview on Sirius-XM radio, he said he is only giving some guidance to the teams and that they have the tools and the people to make it work. He once again, bragged about the ability of Gustafson. He talked about how smart he is as a crew chief and how smart Gordon is as a driver.
On Saturday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway, Gustafson commented on the renewed success of Gordon and what has led to that success, “Well I think really if you go back to the end of last year, we were running really well and had gotten to the position that we were competing at a high level to win every week, and probably the last twelve to fourteen races of last year and ever since then we’ve just been building. That was really the big step, that we’ve been building since then, you know and improving every week, improving every week. So, we made some changes last year, and we made some personnel changes – some philosophy changes and we all got together and a were frustrated at our lack of performance through the summer and we knew we had to change it and we put a lot of initiatives in place and I think now you’re seeing the benefits of that. You know a lot of hard work and I know it’s kind of a cliché and you hear it all the time – you know is there one thing? But it’s everything – to run as well as we are running to win in this sport, you’ve got to have everything working and we’ve got that going on right now.”
He also addressed the talk about Ray Evernham, and the fact that people think he is the reason for the success this season saying, “You I’m not worried about the credit, that’s not what’s important and the thing about Ray is that Ray has been a big supporter of mine and that’s one thing – when you have a guy like that that comes back and you know there’s times you go through struggles and you go through ups and downs – for him to come to me and say look man you’re doing the right thing, just believe in what you’re doing and continue to push forward, you know that helped me out alot. And you know, that was what he did and he came in and evaluated our team and he supported me to the end. So he doesn’t think he had a whole lot to do with it, but I think he influences us in a positive way. Ray’s a special person and you know, I’m happy to work with him and I’m happy to learn from him and you know it’s not about the credit, it’s about the (number) 24 team being successful and he’s got a part of that too.”
One thing is clear when speaking with Gustafson, Evernham or anyone from the Hendrick organization, they seem to be focused on the team interest, not self-interest. They are working well together and it shows in the results on the track and in the attitude of everyone off the track.
That mysterious magic is hard to find, but it seems that Alan Gustafson, Jeff Gordon and the entire No. 24 team may have found the something even more rare – a second chance at magic.