Monday, November 23, 2015

CUP EXTRA: 1993 LASTCAR Champion Jeff Gordon Retires With Six Last-Place Finishes

Sunday saw the 797th and final Cup start for Jeff Gordon, who came home 3rd in the championship after a late rally lifted him to 6th on the track.  Gordon retires with six last-place finishes in NASCAR’s top three divisions.  Looking at the circumstances of these finishes offers an intriguing view of how quickly he adjusted to stock car racing, and to the dedication of his team to get him back on track when things went sideways.

Gordon’s first last-place finish came on April 13, 1991, in his eighth career XFINITY Series start at Bristol.  Just 22 laps into the Budweiser 250, Gordon’s #1 Carolina Ford Dealers Ford lost an engine, taking him out of the race.  It was to be Gordon’s only last-place finish outside of Cup.  Much like Gordon’s debut in the Cup Series the next year, this race also saw a changing of the guard.  Three-time Sportsman champion and two-time XFINITY champion Jack Ingram failed to qualify for the second time that season and would ultimately retire from the tour at season’s end.

Gordon’s next two last-place finishes came during his first full rookie season in Cup in 1993, and both were due to early crashes at the series’ two trips to North Wilkesboro Speedway.  In the First Union 400 on April 18, Gordon’s rainbow-hued #24 DuPont Auto Finishes Chevrolet caught fire after backing into the Turn 1 wall on Lap 26.  Then, during the Tyson / Holly Farms 400 on October 3, his 16th-place car was damaged in a seven-car opening-lap crash when the outside lane failed to get going on the green flag.  Gordon parked the car with handling woes after running a quarter distance.  Gordon got his revenge in 1996, winning the final Cup race yet run at the North Carolina short track.

The next last-place run didn’t happen until the PRIMESTAR 500 on March 9, 1997, during the final race run on the Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 1.522-mile true oval configuration.  Gordon lasted just 59 laps into the site of his first Cup start before the engine let go.  It was to be the first of only two DNFs in an otherwise dominant 10-win season.  When he returned to the Atlanta track for its reconfiguration in the fall, he again struggled to finish 17th, but still walked away with his second Winston Cup.

The final two last-place finishes of Gordon’s career came at the Texas Motor Speedway, a track that vexed the champion after back-to-back early race crashes in the first two races run there in 1997 and 1998.  While he managed to avoid finishing last in both races, he was not so fortunate during the spring races in 1999 and 2008.  The first finish on March 28, 1999 was another crash, a solo shunt into the Turn 4 wall after 68 laps.  The other on April 6, 2008 saw Gordon fighting handling woes once again after a crash in the same spot on Lap 110.  Again, just as he had at North Wilkesboro, Gordon soon managed to solve the Texas puzzle, winning his lone race there in 2009.

Gordon remains the only driver in NASCAR history to win both a NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship and a LASTCAR title, the latter coming during his first Cup season in 1993 after a bottom-ten tiebreaker with ARCA veteran Bob Schacht.  On top of his 93 victories and countless other impressive statistics, it is perhaps this quick turnaround from challenger to champion that is most impressive of all.

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