Gordon Making Milestone Start

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon will make his 700th consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup race tonight in the Bojangles’ Southern 500. (Photo: Getty Images)

DARLINGTON, S.C. - One day, Jeff Gordon’s career will end in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It will be a tribute as much for his championships, wins and poles as for what he gave the sport, showing owners that young drivers could excel and molding a generation of racers.

For all that Gordon has done, though, a question lingers as he prepares to run his 700th consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup race tonight in the Bojangles’ Southern 500.

Have we seen all that Gordon can do?

“I don’t think that we got to see the full potential of the driver that Jeff Gordon is,’’ former crew chief Ray Evernham said. “I really believe that Jeff Gordon could have been a seven or eight-time champion. Maybe he will still win over 100 races. I believe that as incredible a career as he had, I’ve always thought that he had more potential.’’

Evernham does not speak with malice. He and Gordon remain close to the point that Evernham’s wife jokes about Evernham’s bromance with his former driver. Evernham admits his judgment about Gordon could be clouded by looking at the past too fondly, imagining what could have been.

From Gordon’s first full season in Cup in 1993 until Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports during the 1999 season to start his own team, no driver-crew chief combination was as good. They won three championships and 47 races in 216 starts (a 21.8 percent winning percentage). Gordon admits he’s wondered what might have happened had they remained together longer.

Although Gordon has won only one title since, he’s added 40 victories. So, how can anyone even think Gordon didn’t reach his fullest potential?

“There was a time in my mind I wanted him to be the next seven-time champion so bad,’’ Evernham said. “I know that Richard Petty’s mark is just incredible, but I really believed in my heart that Jeff Gordon was going to be the second-winningest driver in NASCAR. Maybe he can do that. I know how good he was in our day when I worked with him. I just know the potential.’’

That’s a funny word, potential. It can be so valuable, yet so demeaning, depending on one’s stage in their career. And how does one even determine if they’ve reached their own potential, or is that even possible?

It’s a tough question for Gordon because he spends more time looking ahead than behind. There’s still another track to go to, another weekend to prepare and another race to win.

“I’m always constantly looking at what can I do, what can we do as a team to continue to get better and get back to into that position (of winning like before),’’ he said.

He thinks back to those days when he dominated, when there was little doubt he would win despite 42 other competitors in his way.

“It’s certainly disappointing that we’ve gone as long as we have without another (title), and I think, in that sense, we have not reached our full potential,’’ said Gordon, whose last Cup championship came in 2001 but has finished in the top 10 in points every year but once since then. “I think we’re capable of doing more.’’

That’s an attitude many share even when looking at their own careers. For all that Petty accomplished, he understands he could have done more.

“The only way I could have done better was to have the knowledge that I have now to put it back then,’’ he said. “I think about some of the races where I screwed up and when I look at it, “How stupid could you have been?’ Really? You would look at it differently and maybe you would accomplish more.’’

But widen the picture on Gordon. Look beyond the track. Look beyond those 87 victories, look beyond that he ranks second in series history in consecutive starts (only behind Ricky Rudd’s streak of 788) and look beyond that only three men in NASCAR’s history have won more championships than Gordon and look at him as a person.

“I got to see the transition and growth of this incredible man that I didn’t expect; what’s he’s done for charity, what he’s done with his children, what he’s done for the sport,’’ Evernham said. “I look at that and think, 'wow.'"

The Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation has provided millions to fund pediatric medical research dedicated to a cure for cancer. The foundation has expanded his reach beyond the U.S. to facilitate cancer care in Rwanda.

“I’m proud of where I am,’’ said Gordon, husband to Ingrid and father to Ella, 5, and Leo, 2. “In some areas I’ve exceeded expectations and full potential because I never saw myself doing some of these things to the level that we’re doing it, like our foundation.

“I’ve certainly made my mistakes but I also feel like I’ve learned from them. I’m pretty critical of myself, I’m always wanting to be better, find ways to keep the success going, live a full life and do more for kids and enjoy those moments with family and friends more. So you never really reach your full potential because there’s always more you can get.’’

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