Gordon struggles to regain momentum that made him a champ
Dale Earnhardt entered the 1995 season with the opportunity to surpass Richard Petty and become the all-time leader with eight Sprint Cup championships and to join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win three in a row.
Earnhardt had won six of the previous nine titles, doing it back-to-back three times driving for Richard Childress. The Intimidator had finished 444 points under the former season-long scoring system ahead of Mark Martin in 1994.
Who was going to be tough enough and smart enough to stop him?
Maybe Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion who had taken Earnhardt to the wire in 1993, losing the championship by 80 points. Maybe Martin, if he could finish up front more consistently. Jeff Gordon? He was a kid, 23 at the start of 1995, heading into his third full season. Gordon had won two races, including the inaugural Brickyard 400, and was eighth in the points the previous year. Talented, no doubt, but it was hard to believe he was ready to take on the aggressive tactics, the supreme car control and overall driving ability of Earnhardt.
Wonder Boy emerged. Gordon won seven races to Earnhardt's five and earned the 31-race championship by beating Earnhardt by 34 points. A classic rivalry was born, lasting until Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.
"It wasn't made up," Gordon said. "It just happened. Here's this young kid from California growing up in modern day motorsports, just growing up being interviewed on ESPN and all those things, to old-school, hard-knocks Dale Earnhardt. It was just black and white, just two total opposites in a way, even though later, as Dale and I got to know one another, we weren't as opposite as maybe it was perceived from the outside.
"Still, that's the way the fans thought of it and the way the media thought of it. It heightened the excitement of those championship battles."
Gordon's period of dominance had begun. He won back-to-back championships in '97 and '98 and a fourth in seven seasons in 2001. Gordon was 30, in his prime. He seemed bound for the territory occupied by Petty and Earnhardt, seven titles, and who knows how many wins. David Pearson's 105, second all-time to Petty's 200, didn't seem out of reach.
The victories kept piling up, 81 through the 2007 season, but Gordon hasn't gotten to a fifth championship. He has one win in the past three seasons and goes into Sunday's Daytona 500, where he'll start on the front row, trying to break a 65-race winless streak.
Gordon isn't even the top driver at Hendrick Motorsports anymore, hasn't been since 2006 when Jimmie Johnson began his streak of five straight championships. It is Johnson chasing Petty and Earnhardt to become regarded as the best of all time. Some think Johnson already is equal to the seven-time champs because of how he's done it, but two more would indisputably expand the exalted club from two to three.
Gordon says he never dreamed about winning seven championships.
"I never thought it was a reality," he said. "I just looked at seven as like that's just crazy to be able to do that. But we went on a heck of a streak there. You hope you could just keep that streak gong for as long as you can, but you never know when the day, the momentum is going to slow down and stop. Then, you have to reinvent yourself, sometimes reinvent the team.
"You can never have it quite like it was when you are at that peak, if you had the kind of success that the 48 [Johnson] has had, even Richard [Petty] and Dale [Earnhardt]. But it's possible, it's just tough."
Gordon is an equity partner at Hendrick, listed as owner of the No. 48. He shares in the Johnson's success, but he's not always happy about it. There have been a few flare ups between them following races in recent seasons.
It's an indication that the fire to win rages inside Gordon and it's frustrating to know your teammate, with the same equipment, is winning and you're not.
"It tells you the ingredients are there, the tools are there," Gordon explained. "It tells you how important teamwork, chemistry and confidence in one another truly is. I applaud those guys , what they've been able to accomplish. It's amazing to be there seeing it as close as I have.
"But at the same time, you want to know why you're not experiencing that. So, it's good and it's bad."
Gordon had a strong start last season, nearly won at Las Vegas, Martinsville and Richmond. But he struggled in the final races of the regular season and in the Chase.
"I feel like last year I worked as hard as I've ever worked," Gordon said.
"The battle for wins came early in the season, but we didn't finish it out. They didn't come towards the later part of the season. It was very, very tough. You have to work very hard to find the fun in it."
Owner Rick Hendrick moved the crew chiefs around following last season on three of his four cars, leaving the championship duo of Johnson and Knaus intact. Gordon's new crew chief is Alan Gustafson. Steve Letarte had been Gordon's crew chief since 2006. A shakeup was needed and welcomed by Gordon.
"I can tell you it hasn't been quite as much fun the last couple of years," Gordon said. "But we have been fairly competitive, just not as competitive as we've been in the past. Now it's been a goal and a challenge to get back and to see, 'Do I have what it takes? Can I create that chemistry in a team to have what it takes to be successful and battle for a championship?'
"I think this year is a real test for me and for Alan and this whole team."
Gordon's 82 victories places him sixth all-time. Three more will move him past Yarborough (83), Bobby Allison (84) and Darrell Waltrip (84) into third.
Gordon still has time in his career to get there if the chemistry clicks with Gustafson.
Another championship seems less likely. Gordon has gone through nine seasons since the fourth. Terry Labonte won his first championship in 1984 and his second in 1996. There's historical precedence for Gordon, but it will get more difficult with each passing year. History teaches us that, too.