Reid Spencer, NASCAR Illustrated
Jeff Gordon & Leader
By 2002, without knowing it, Jeff Gordon had already sown the seeds of his own demise.
In its truest sense, “demise” is too strong a word, because it implies a decline in skill and acuity that was not true of Gordon 13 years ago -- and arguably isn’t true today, despite nagging problems with his back.
In fact, in 2001, Gordon had just won his fourth NASCAR Winston Cup championship with Hendrick Motorsports and his first with a crew chief other than Ray Evernham.
But Gordon had already set in motion the forces of competitive Darwinism that soon would dislodge him from the pinnacle of the sport, just as he had begun his usurpation of Dale Earnhardt’s sovereignty a decade earlier.
Gordon’s case, though, is unique, for he had helped identify, promote, hire and mentor his successor, Jimmie Johnson, and was smart enough to profit from his protégé’s success.
From 2002 through 2014, Johnson won six championships, including a record five straight from 2006 through 2010. Gordon won none.
True, Gordon had hedged his bet with a piece of the action -- a substantial ownership stake in Johnson’s No. 48 team -- but winning titles as the owner of record on a car doesn’t match the rush of winning them behind the wheel.
Steve Letarte, Gordon’s crew chief from late 2005 through 2010, can’t recall Gordon ever second-guessing the wholehearted pitch he made for Johnson in the boardroom of prospective sponsor Lowe’s, which has advertised its home improvement business on the hood of Johnson’s car ever since.
According to Letarte, the words, “What was I thinking?” never came out of Gordon’s mouth.
“I don’t know if he’s ever expressed it, but we’ve definitely all thought it,” said Letarte, who has transitioned from the pit boxes at Hendrick Motorsports to the NBC Sports TV booth.
Gordon, on the other hand, scoffs at the suggestion. Standing inside the No. 24 team’s transporter on a rainy Friday afternoon at Dover International Speedway, Gordon deflected the question.
“No, I 100-percent know what I was thinking, and why I was thinking it,” he said. “And, if anything, I probably didn’t even do enough. If I’d known that this guy was going to turn out the way he did, I would have wanted to own 100 percent of the team.”
Gordon’s infectious laughter at his own bon mot echoed off the stainless steel counters in the hauler like a ringing bell.
“What cracks me up,” Gordon continued, “especially through Twitter and other forms of either social media or interactive fans or just media in general, people are like, ‘Oh, if it hadn’t been for Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon would have had …
Gordon paused, inviting a fill-in-the-blank response. Six championships? Seven? Eight?
“That’s not true at all,” he said. “I think that Jimmie did exactly what we all hoped that he would do and elevated the whole company, where we all race for more championships, and I think it’s worked. I feel like we as the 24 team didn’t fully get the most potential out of what we were doing, and that’s why they won. They had the same stuff we had. They just did a better job with it.”
Johnson’s 2002 rookie season coincided with an upheaval in Gordon’s life. His wife, Brooke Gordon, sued for divorce, claiming the marriage was irretrievably broken. Gordon countersued, arguing he deserved more than 50 percent of the marital assets because of the risks he took as a driver to acquire them.
Ultimately, the couple settled the contentious divorce action in June 2003, with Brooke Gordon receiving a settlement valued at a reported $15.3 million.
Gordon’s contemporaneous comment on the accord was typically understated.
“I’m happy with the terms of the settlement and I wish Brooke the best in the future,” he said in a brief statement, closing that chapter of his life.
If the divorce was a personal failure for Gordon, it paled in comparison with the unimaginable tragedy that struck Hendrick Motorsports on Oct. 24, 2004, when the Beech 200 carrying Hendrick family members, employees and others within the racing community crashed in heavy fog seven miles from Martinsville’s Blue Ridge Regional Airport.
The crash killed all 10 aboard: Ricky Hendrick, son of team owner Rick Hendrick; John Hendrick, brother of Rick Hendrick and president of Hendrick Motorsports; Jennifer and Kimberly Hendrick, twin daughters of John Hendrick; Joe Jackson, an executive with DuPont, Gordon's sponsor; Jeff Turner, general manager at Hendrick Motorsports; Randy Dorton, Hendrick’s chief engine builder; Scott Lathram, a pilot for driver Tony Stewart; and pilots Dick Tracy and Liz Morrison.
Brian Vickers, who drove Cup cars for Hendrick from 2003 through 2006, sees Gordon as crucial to the long healing process that followed the devastating loss.
“I think Jeff played a bigger role at Hendrick Motorsports than a lot of people realize, and I think that role took on new levels after the plane crash,” Vickers said.
“That whole time was so difficult for everyone involved,” Letarte said. “Without a doubt, he did more. I think there were a lot of people around the company that had to do more. But Jeff was that guy. He was always more than just a driver.”
To Gordon, a tragedy that could have destroyed the organization instead had the opposite effect.
“I felt like it was a time where we were all dealing with a lot of grief in different ways,” Gordon said. “I think, most of all, we just had incredible compassion for our leader. Rick -- he lost so much, family members, friends, people that worked for him. That was overwhelming, and I think most of us felt for him. At the same time, we saw how he led us through that, and it brought us all together in a way that I never thought we could.
“It’s still with us every day. Where my office is located at Hendrick, I walk down the hallway, and every one of those people that were on that plane, their picture is on that hallway as a reminder. I’m glad that we’ve never forgotten those people and what they brought to the world when they were here, and how we can always remember them and think of them and how we did come together in a way to make all of us stronger.”
The year after the crash, Gordon failed to qualify for the Chase for the only time since the inception of NASCAR’s 10-race playoff system in 2004. With 10 races left in the 2005 season, crew chief Robbie Loomis made a planned exit, in part because of his mother’s serious pancreatic illness, in part because of the emotional toll the plane crash had exacted on him.
Gordon opted to hire within the organization and chose Letarte, then 26, as his new crew chief. Before Letarte took over the pit box at New Hampshire, Gordon sat down with his new hire for a conversation that remains indelibly etched in the crew chief’s memory.
“When he sat me down as a young 26-year-old rookie,” Letarte said, “I didn’t have any idea what I was getting myself into, and he explained to me that he had all the belief in the world in me and that we were going to be fine, and for this to work, I had to treat him like everyone else on the race team. This was after four championship and 60 or 70 wins.
“For a guy to put himself in that position definitely told me how well he understood the sport -- more than that, just how classy of a person he was. He could have had anybody he wanted. He could have told me anything he wanted. It was basically his race team that I was crew-chiefing. But that was never his approach. His approach was always from that higher level.”
The 2006 season produced two victories and a sixth-place finish in the final standings. It also produced a first championship for Johnson and a second marriage for Gordon, to Belgian model Ingrid Vandebosch in a November ceremony in Mexico.
Daughter Ella would follow in 2007 and son Leo in 2010.
The 2007 season also marked Gordon’s most tantalizing flirtation with a championship under the Chase format. On a limited basis, NASCAR had introduced its controversial Car of Tomorrow (COT) before a full roll-out in 2008, and Gordon and Johnson went head-to-head for the title, as Hendrick Motorsports collectively won half of the 36 Sprint Cup points races that season.
“I was the test driver for Hendrick, and Hendrick had the very first COT,” Vickers said. “I did a ton of testing in the COT before it ever hit the race track, even when it was still conceptual. I think Hendrick Motorsports was just lights-out ahead of every other organization through the middle of that decade.”
Halfway through the Chase, after back-to-back victories at Talladega and Charlotte, Gordon led Johnson by 68 points. But the 48 team would win the next four races and clinch the championship by 77 points with a seventh-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I know how hard we worked that year to win that one, and we came up short,” Letarte said. “That was definitely the toughest year we had together. Even though it was the most successful, it was the toughest at the same time.”
Gordon’s perception of that season is markedly different.
“No, we finished second in points,” he said. “I can think of a lot worse seasons than that …
“For him (Letarte), that was that one opportunity, maybe. For me, I’ve had many opportunities. When I think of bad years, 2010 to me was a devastating one because we didn’t win a race, and we weren’t up there in the points. That was more of a tougher year than 2007.”
The 2010 season also was the last for Gordon and Letarte as a driver/crew chief pairing. At the end of the year, Rick Hendrick opted to shuffle his lineup, pairing Letarte with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and moving Alan Gustafson to Gordon’s car.
“As odd as it may sound, it was almost a relief to me, because I feel like I had let Jeff Gordon down,” Letarte said. “We were winless in two or three seasons. We didn’t win in ’08; we didn’t win again in ’10. I really look back on that 2007 season, and there was a major hangover from that season that I don’t think we ever really recovered from …
“We worked very hard, we tried very hard, we approached it a hundred different ways, but we just never seemed to get out feet back under us after that 2007 season.”
From 2011 through 2014, Gordon’s best points finish was sixth (in 2013 and 2014). But the legacy of his last 15 years in the sport is certain to transcend his performance on the track.
“He made my career,” Letarte said.
“Without a doubt, the opportunity to drive for Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick and Lowe’s changed my life,” Johnson said. “My head is still spinning.”
“He really was like a big brother and mentor to me for many years and kind of helped shape my career and life,” Vickers said.
Kurt Busch, winner of the first Chase in 2004, recalls a pep talk he got from Gordon at the drivers’ dinner in Chicago before the 2013 playoff began. After losing his ride at Penske Racing in 2011, Busch was resurrecting his career during a one-year stint at Furniture Row Racing.
“He wanted to make sure he came over and put his arm around me and congratulated me and the team on working a single-car team into the Chase,” Busch said. “He wanted to share with me that I’ve done things with a car that he didn’t think were possible. I was surprised to get the compliment from him.
“But at the same time, I could revert back to a time when we sat on the front row together (for the 2001 Southern 500), and I was a rookie, and he was a champion, and he said, ‘Kurt, you’ve got the pole. You should lead going down into Turn 1 at Darlington -- and I’ll pass you later on.’
“It’s really neat to have shared the track with him over the last 15 years and to see what he’s done for our sport.”
When Gordon retires from full-time driving at the end of the 2015 season, hands the car over to rookie Chase Elliott and ascends to the Fox television booth, Letarte will be just as happy NBC doesn’t broadcast the first half of the 2016 races.
“I’m sure I would call Jeff Gordon in the 24 car for the first five or six weeks out of habit,” Letarte said. “So maybe by July it will seem normal that he’s not behind the wheel of the 24.”
Then again, maybe that’s something no one in racing will ever really consider normal, given the impact Gordon has had on the sport, both from behind the wheel and outside the car.