After all, he averaged over eight wins per season during the first five years of his career and, at one time, was so singular in his performances on the track that many thought he might well eclipse anything NASCAR has ever known.
Think of it. From 1994, just one season after he first competed on the full schedule with Hendrick Motorsports, until 1998, Gordon won a remarkable 42 races and three championships. In the year he did not win a title, 1996, he finished second to Hendrick teammate Terry Labonte.
He was so astonishing on the tracks, and at such a tender young age, he earned the nickname “Wonder Boy,” given to him by the late Dale Earnhardt. Don’t think Gordon was overly fond of it.
I remember Gordon’s unheralded debut in Atlanta in the fall of 1992. It was the race in which Petty made his last career start and Alan Kulwicki ultimately won the championship by 10 points over Bill Elliott, the closest margin in NASCAR history. Gordon finished 31st.
I also remember the first time I saw Gordon away from the track. It was at a cocktail party in downtown Charlotte thrown by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Tom Higgins, then with the Charlotte Observer, and I were standing at one of the many bars. A baby-faced Gordon, with his wispy moustache, walked in somewhat wide-eyed.
He stepped up to the bar and ordered a Coke – as you might expect. When served he asked, “How much?”
Higgins and I knew we had just seen someone who had never been invited to a cocktail party.
“There’s no charge,” we said.
“Good evening, Mr. Waid and Mr. Higgins,” Gordon said.
“Son, Mr. Higgins is my father,” Higgins said. “Call me Tom. This is Steve.”
At that time, which was well before Gordon made his victory and championship runs, neither of us had any idea of what he would achieve – or did anyone else, for that matter.
As Gordon accomplished what he did during the first half-dozen years of his career some fans grew to resent him.
They felt he was a driver simply handed everything needed to succeed. He hooked up with one of NASCAR’s best teams, armed with top equipment and personnel. Anyone with a modicum of talent, they said, could win in such a situation. He was a driver who had a silver spoon shoved into his mouth. He never paid his dues.
This is balderdash, of course.
Gordon’s talents were honed from the time he was barely able to walk. With the guidance of his family he raced open-wheel and Sprint Cars all across the country – and very successfully.
It was only after team owner Rick Hendrick, who has always had an eye for talent, saw him drive the wheels off a Nationwide Series car that Gordon got his break to enter the top echelon of NASCAR.
Let’s move forward in time. Gordon is now 38 years old. He hasn’t been called “Wonder Boy” in years. He’s an established NASCAR star. He won his fourth, and to date last, title in 2001.
But as quickly as his career soared early it has since fallen back to earth.
Other than in 2007, when he won six races and finished second in the Chase, his career has been far less productive than it once was. He didn’t make the Chase in 2005. His last victory came at Texas in the spring of 2009, which means he’s won just once since 2008.
Mired in a victory drought, Gordon undoubtedly views the 2011 season as one of redemption. He’ll compete with a new crew chief, Alan Gustafson, who came aboard after an off-season Hendrick shuffle. Gustafson was formerly Mark Martin’s pit boss.
Gordon hopes to find chemistry with Gustafson but nothing is guaranteed.
Gordon also feels there is nothing seriously wrong with his team. It doesn’t need sweeping change. He thinks with some small alterations; some tweaking, it will get better. And he knows it needs to be. The competition is stronger than ever.
Gordon maintains age has not diminished his skills nor has fatherhood dulled his competitiveness. He feels he still wants to win as strongly as he did in his youth.
But, as he said during the Sprint Cup Media Tour, he can’t make things better by himself – nor can his crew chief.
“We have to capitalize on opportunities to get wins, to create chemistry and confidence and keep that going all year long,” Gordon said. “That’s going to take teamwork.”
There was a time when we’d never hear those words from Gordon. But things change.
And every top driver has gone through a slump. The great ones break out of it.
It’s very likely Gordon looks at 2011 as his chance to do just that.