From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, February 10, 2003
SURE, JEFF GORDON IS THIS CONTINENT'S RED-HOT RACE CAR DRIVER and thus, as far as marketing strategies and household mythology go, a fire-breathing, death-eating meta-daredevil sex machine; but Gordon's won so many races now that he's managed to take the wow out of it for us, to make the deadly-extraordinary look routine. And his public image, his corporate persona, has been a strangely dull concoction. You see that Ace Racer face lasering right-angle rectitude back at you from a box of Frosted Mini Wheats or a can of Pepsi or the pages of DuPont's annual report, and you're not buying excitement, you're buying his soothing reassurance, and not just about cereal or soda or sales figures, either, but about yourself, about America, about the world. His very face guarantees that there won't be any bad surprises.
As the 2001 series champion Gordon entered the 2002 season answering the usual champeen questions. How do you feel? How's the team? How's the car? Can you repeat? Somehow the one question that never got asked was the one boiling away in every brain in NASCAR and the only one you could never answer. Jeff Gordon is the Alltime Money Winner. Jeff Gordon changed stock car racing forever. Dale Earnhardt is gone, and '01, the Season of Mourning, is over. Is Jeff Gordon, at last, the Man?
Winning percentage is a statistic that NASCAR doesn't use much. The highest lifetime percentage belongs to Tim Flock, a popular driver during the early '50s. He won 40 races in a brief career, only 189 starts, for a winning percentage of .212. Gordon's percentage through the beginning of the 2002 season, 58 wins in 293 starts, was .198. Tim Flock won a race once every 4.7 times he got in the car. David Pearson, every 5.4 times. Richard Petty, every 5.8 times. Dale Earnhardt, every 8.8 times. Darrell Waltrip, 9.6. Before '02 Gordon won once every five times he raced the car.
Perhaps this is why Gordon's 2002 "losing streak" was of such endless interest to the press. Or maybe it was simple racing schadenfreude, joy in the failure of Jeff Gordon.
Funny thing is, even with a fourth-place season, Gordon has never looked happier. In fact, people have been saying all year—good day or bad, high finish or low, in the car or at the garage or on the grid, racing go-karts against his crew or meeting the press or the Make-a-Wish kids or pranking the doubters—that he's looser and goofier than they've ever seen him. Has he changed? Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis, has perhaps the smartest answer: "I hear that a lot. I haven't really noticed a difference in him. I think it's just that now everybody in the garage—the officials, the teams, the other drivers—sees a lot more of the Gordon that always was there. He's the same; you just get to spend more time with him."
Gordon's take? "I don't feel like I've changed. I'm just more myself."
What about 2003? Early last year Gordon was asked what he'd traded away to win all those races over all those years, to win all those hearts and minds, to make all those deadly enemies. What was the price for something like that? "As successful as I've been on the racetrack the last couple of years, I feel like a lot of things have passed me by." Then he paused. "Maybe that'll change."
Maybe not the Man, not yet, but a man, at least, in full.