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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Jeff Gordon is the only great driver racing in America today

by Gordon Kirby
Six years have passed since Jeff Gordon won his fourth and last NASCAR Cup championship--it was still the Winston Cup back in those days. In that time, Tony Stewart (twice), Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson have won the Cup title establishing themselves as distant pretenders to the throne vacated by the late Dale Earnhardt when he died at Daytona in February of '01. Gordon went on to win six races that year and take his fourth championship in seven years. Since then Gordon has won twenty-four more Cup races but was a championship contender only in 2004, the first year of NASCAR's Chase for the Cup.

This year however, he and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson have been the men to beat, both of them running at the top of the points throughout the season. Between them, they've won twelve of the first thirty-one races and backed up those wins with tremendously consistent top five and top ten finishes. Gordon has finished in the top five nineteen times and has made the top ten in twenty-five races. Johnson has sixteen top five results and nineteen top tens. The only other drivers to come close to equaling Gordon and Johnson's records of consistency this season have been Joe Gibbs teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, and to a lesser degree Matt Kenseth with Roush-Fenway, but nobody has run at the front this year more than Gordon and Johnson.

Here too, is a complete contrast to what we so often see in Formula 1 with a pair of teammates who are close friends, equaly respectful of each other on and off the track. Gordon is a part owner of Johnson's car, of course, and was an advocate of Johnson joining Hendrick back in 2001. You would think the likes of Ron Dennis would learn that this is the way to achieve maximum results, not the silly and unproductive F1 method of pitting driver against driver.

With five races to go, this year's NASCAR Chase for the Cup is focusing on an intramural battle between Gordon and Johnson who have demonstrated in race after race that they are the smartest, sharpest drivers in NASCAR. If Gordon wins his fifth title he will be in a class of his own--as he is already--as the King of active stock car racers, and will be well down the road to becoming one of NASCAR's greatest drivers of all-time.

Early in the year Gordon passed Dale Earnhardt's tally of seventy-five Cup wins and his victories at Talladega and Charlotte marked his eightieth and eighty-first wins. Either later this year or sometime next year he should leapfrog ahead of each of Cale Yarborough (83 wins), Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (both with 84) and establish himself as NASCAR's third most successful driver of all-time behind Richard Petty and David Pearson.

Gordon's pursuit of his fifth championship has emphasized the point that he is the only truly great driver racing in America today. This is his fifteenth season in Cup--all with Rick Hendrick's team--and at 36, he may even have a shot at overhauling three-time champion Pearson's tally of 105 wins. Will fatherhood slow Gordon down, or start him on the road to retirement? That remains to be seen, but on current form he is driving as well as ever and is also as motivated as ever.

Even though he's not a fan of restrictor plate racing he's won more of these races (twelve) than anyone else. His last-lap move at Talladega last week emphasized how sharp and aggressive he is and of course, the teamwork that went on with teammate Johnson until that point--and also with Casey Mears--was textbook perfect as they played along, at or near the back for most of the race, disciplining and boring themselves to death until attacking at exactly the right moment. The teamwork between the Hendrick drivers and Gordon's brilliant, winning move was in sharp contrast to Tony Stewart's desperately wild slashes across the track as he realized Gordon and Johnson had him beaten.

At Charlotte on Saturday night Gordon won again, scoring his first win at the track in eight years. Johnson finished no better than fourteenth after a spin so that Gordon extended his cushion to sixty points over his teammate while Clint Bowyer kept himself in the championship hunt with a strong run to second at Charlotte.

When you take a close look at NASCAR, it's really not much different from F1 in that a handful of big teams dominate play. It's just that there are many more big teams in NASCAR than F1. This year, eight Cup teams are fielding a total of twenty-seven cars. At the top of the heap is Hendrick Motorsport's four-car Chevrolet operation. The other leading Chevrolet teams in recent years have been Joe Gibbs Racing's three cars led by 2002 and '05 champion Tony Stewart and the trio of Chevrolets fielded by both Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc, although Gibbs' team becomes the first high-profile operation to switch to Toyota in '08. Ford's top NASCAR team is the five-car Roush-Fenway operation which includes 2003 champion Matt Kenseth and this year's second division Busch champion Carl Edwards.

Next in NASCAR's pecking order are Roger Penske's pair of Dodges which will expand to a three-car team in '08, and Chip Ganassi's trio of Dodges. Former IRL champion and Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish has begun to make the transition to NASCAR this year and Hornish is expected to join Penske's Cup drivers Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman in the team's third Dodge in '08. The eighth member of the big teams is Gillett-Evernham Racing which has had a tough time this year with its trio of Dodges driven by Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs. And of the remaining old stager NASCAR teams, Robert Yates has merged with Roush-Fenway and Richard and Kyle Petty are talking to Ray Evernham and George Gillett about merging with the recently-created Gillett-Evernham combine.

The big story in NASCAR this year, of course, was Dale Earnhardt Jr's decision to leave the family team and jump to the mighty Hendrick team for '08 beside Gordon, Johnson and Casey Mears. Earnhardt has also left longtime sponsor Budweiser behind for a new alliance with Pepsico power drink Amp Energy and the Army National Guard. His move has left some longtime Earnhardt fans cold because Hendrick's team and Gordon and Johnson are considered to be anti-Christs. Hendrick's operation is looked at by many Earnhardt fans as the ultimate, establishment organization which some believe is in bed with NASCAR. And Gordon and Johnson are California dirt trackers with apartments in Manhattan, not exactly what the true Carolina stock car fan expects of a Cup driver!

In the bigger picture, it will be interesting to see how Dale Jr stacks up against Gordon and Johnson in identical equipment. In the wake of his father's death at Daytona in 2001, 'Little E' has become NASCAR's biggest star and most popular driver, but he has yet to seriously contend for a championship and as everyone knows, failed to qualify for the Chase for Cup in his last year with DEI. Dale Jr celebrated his thirty-third birthday last week. He's now been racing Cup cars for nine years and it's time he showed the world what he can, or can't do.

Meanwhile, how do we measure Gordon against America's or the world's greatest drivers? In the old days through the last decades of the last century the real measure of a great driver was in the diversity of his accomplishments. Great drivers like Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Juan Fangio, Tazio Nuvolari and Rudolf Carraciola raced successfully in a wide range of cars. In the grand pantheon, Andretti and Gurney in particular stand out because they won in F1, Indy cars, long-distance sports cars and NASCAR stock cars. But today, that essential ingredient has been sucked out of the sport by commercialism and the capitalistic tendency toward monopoly with F1 and NASCAR drivers committed to jammed schedules of racing, testing and marketing or promotional events.

For his part, Gordon has successfully raced long-distance sports cars at Daytona, sharing the third-placed car in this year's Rolex 24 with Max Angelelli and Jan Magnussen. He also tested a Williams-BMW F1 car at Indianapolis a few years ago, impressing everyone at Williams with his tremendous ability and thoroughly professional approach. From what they saw of him in that test, Frank Williams and Patrick Head have not the slightest doubt that Gordon could have raced successfuly in F1. But of course, that didn't and will not happen.

All we can do is compare Gordon intramurally with his NASCAR peers. On that count his only rival is two-time champion Tony Stewart who's also known for racing as many different types of car as possible and has also competed in the Daytona 24 hours. But Stewart has a long way to go to match Gordon and as time wears on I believe Jeff's pal Jimmie Johnson is more likely to challenge Gordon's position in the pantheon of American racers.

On the American open-wheel front the most accomplished drivers of the past dozen years have been Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi, Juan Montoya, Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish, Paul Tracy, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti. All save de Ferran are still active and Hornish is the only American among them. Bourdais's achievements in Champ Car with Newman/Haas/Lanigan are statistically unassailable but because of the series' reduced standing, the Frenchman has not received the recognition he deserves. Sebastien also has a considerable record in long-distance sports cars at Le Mans in particular and finally gets his F1 chance next year, for better or worse, with Scuderia Toro Rosso.

Of course, open-wheel heroes Villeneuve, Montoya, Hornish and Franchitti have now moved onto Gordon's turf and in that way they will be judged against him. If nothing else in fact, Gordon is the yardstick by which all other drivers competing in the United States will be judged for many years to come.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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