by Ryan Isley
Jeff Gordon is leaving the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series following this season. My first prediction for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is that he will do so by starting out with a win in the Daytona 500 for the fourth time in his career.
If there is anyone who knows the layout of Daytona International Speedway, it would be Gordon. The 2015 Daytona 500 marks the 45th time the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet will make laps at the track in an official race. Add in the non-points events such as the Budweiser Duels or the Sprint Unlimited and let’s just say that Gordon has some familiarity with the facility. The only active drivers to race in more Daytona 500s are Terry Labonte and Michael Waltrip, neither of whom has run a full schedule in years.
Not only does Gordon know the layout of the track at Daytona, he also knows the way to get to victory lane. The 43-year-old is the active career leader with six wins overall at Daytona International Speedway and has won the Daytona 500 three times, also tops among active drivers. In fact, only Richard Petty (seven) and Cale Yarborough (four) have won the Great American race more times and Bobby Allison and Dale Jarrett are the only other driver to have won the race three times. Among active drivers, only Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who have each hoisted the trophy on two occasions, have won the race multiple times.
Speaking of Hendrick Motorsports, the organization has won the last two Daytona 500s, with Johnson going to victory lane in 2013 and Earnhardt Jr. celebrating in 2014. Hendrick’s eight wins in the season’s opening race are second only to the nine won by Richard Enterprises, who closed their doors in 2009 before merging and forming Richard Petty Motorsports with Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
Gordon’s last Daytona 500 triumph came in 2005 and he struggled for the most part of the next eight tries in the race, finishing with just one top-10 finish (10th in 2007). After a run of four races from 2010-2013 where Gordon didn’t finish better than 20th and included a second-worst career Daytona 500 finish of 40th in 2012, he came out with a 4th-place finish in the race last season.
His 4th-place finish in the 2014 version of the race was his 13th top-5 finish and 20th top-10 at the track (spread over both races at the track each season). The 13 top-5s are the most among active drivers, while the 20 top-10s are second only to Labonte’s 26.
The top-5 finish in last year’s race propelled Gordon to somewhat of a career revival, as he won four times during the course of the season. Those four wins were the most in a single season for Gordon since he won six times in 2007. His 14 top-5s were the most since he had 16 in 2009 and his 23 top-10s was his best mark since he did it 25 times in 2009. Piggybacking on those top-5s and top-10s, Gordon’s average finishing position of 10.4 was also the best since 2009, when he averaged a finish of 10.2.
One reason Gordon was able to have better numbers at the end of the races last season is because he put himself in a better position at the beginning. He seemed to benefit from the new qualifying format, finishing 2014 with an average starting position of 9th. He had not shown that kind of success in qualifying since 200, when his average start was 8.6. He won the pole three times and started in the top-10 23 times and the top-5 on 14 occasions throughout the season.
If Gordon can find a way to victory lane this February at Daytona, it could set the stage for him to go out with a bang and win a series championship in his final season. But first things first – he has to maneuver his way through 500 miles at Daytona without getting caught up in any of the unpredictability that comes with restrictor plate racing.
Of course a win in the Daytona 500 for Gordon would be a great story, but would also come with its share of conspiracy theorists as did the victory last year by Earnhardt, Jr. But who cares? The story would far outweigh the conspiracy.