Amid all the brick kissing and reveling in Jeff Gordon’s fifth Brickyard 400 victory on Sunday, a more important milestone was overlooked.
Gordon became only the third driver in NASCAR history to win 90 races. Ninety. That’s how many wins Aric Almirola has times 90.
It’s an incredible feat for a driver in the modern era. Richard Petty won 200 races and David Pearson is second on the list with 105, but those legendary drivers did it in a much different climate. The competition level wasn’t in the vicinity of where it is today and races were seemingly held about 322 times a year. Maybe not that many, but you get the point. Pearson competed in 61 races in 1964 and won 16 of 48 in 1968.
My point isn’t to disparage what Petty and Pearson accomplished, but to bring to light what Gordon has done. Probably the best way to do it is to say that Gordon will either be the last driver to ever reach 90 wins, or the second-to-last driver to do it. It took Gordon 20-plus years to get there, and today, I’m not sure it’s realistic for more than a few drivers to hang around two decades in Sprint Cup. Unless you’re Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was given years to get his act together at Hendrick Motorsports, the top teams in NASCAR aren’t going to waste much time in making a change when the results aren’t there.
Let’s put Gordon’s career in perspective against a couple of drivers considered to be at the top of the talent pool today, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. Each driver is racing in his 11th season — half of Gordon’s career — and Busch has 29 victories and Edwards, 23. They won’t even come close to 90. Neither will anyone else for that matter, besides Jimmie Johnson. Currently at 69 wins, Johnson is on pace to reach 90 in 2018 or 2019. That’s barring he stays healthy, doesn’t lose a step and Chad Knaus doesn’t decide to retire after 15-plus years of working 90 hours a week. If Johnson continues at his current rate, chances are he will be 43 when he reaches 90, the same age Gordon is now.
There’s no reason to think Johnson won’t keep that pace, but you never know. I don’t anticipate Chandra trying to run Jimmie over with a racecar after she finds out about his mistresses, like Elin attacked Tiger Woods with the golf club, but who would anticipate that? That combined with a back injury and some driving issues had Tiger Woods recently fell behind Jack Nicklaus’ major wins pace. If Tiger gets to Jack’s 18 wins, he’ll probably be the last.
If Johnson reaches 90 wins, he will be the last. And I’m not giving it to Johnson just yet. Five Brickyard 400s is a big deal, but a driver besides Johnson could definitely match that mark someday. Another driver could also win four championships and three Daytona 500s, but they won’t get 90 wins.
Unless you were a Jeff Gordon fan in 1990s, it was difficult to appreciate his dominance. Fans either loved or hated him. He angered roughly half the fan base by not only taking the top step on the NASCAR pedestal from Dale Earnhardt, but by doing it so easily.
The other reason there wasn’t much middle ground was because Gordon won so damn much. In 1998, he posted the greatest season of all-time. It’s another mark that is unlikely to be touched; he won 13 times in 33 races and had 26 top 5s. Twenty-six top 5s in 33 races? He made the Cup field look like he was racing a Joe Gibbs Racing car in the current Nationwide Series.
It took Gordon to slow down in the 2000s and Johnson’s feats for me to look back and really appreciate Gordon. I think that’s the case for many NASCAR fans. When Johnson was heralded as NASCAR’s greatest driver for all of his titles, many of us who watched in the ’90s said, “Wait a second. I’ve seen this before, and I’ve seen it done better.”
The boos that used to accompany Gordon — even louder than the boos Kyle Busch receives now — are much quieter these days. There is a respect that has been built for Gordon’s talent. Even if you aren’t a Gordon fan, as an auto racing fan it’s difficult not to marvel at what he’s done.
On Sunday, he won a race 20 years after the first time he won it. Has anyone ever done that?
Ninety wins. Sunday was either the last time or the second-to-last time you will ever see it. Appreciate it.