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Caraviello: With 85 victories, Gordon may be last of his breed

September 06, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

It doesn't carry quite the magic of one of those nice round numbers, like 50 or 100, or the other obvious milestones that mark progress down a career highway. But Jeff Gordon's 85th career victory in NASCAR's premier series was notable not just because it put him in third place alone -- breaking the tie with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison -- on the circuit's all-time win list. No, the greater significance from this achievement comes from the fact that we may never witness a driver reaching such a level again.

Gordon may very well be the last of his breed, the final driver we ever see ascend to a height behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson, whose triple-digit victory totals have been out of reach for some time now. It's a testament to his talent and longevity, of course, but it's also due to the changing nature of competition and driving as a career. The Cup Series Gordon competes in now is a very different circuit from the one he started out in, and driver No. 24 played no small part in that transformation. And in the process, he made it that much more difficult for any of his successors to match his latest accomplishment.

Gordon opened his career in a 1992 race in Atlanta that ended with a 41st-place finish and a crash. While that race at the time was better known for two other events -- Petty's farewell and the mad dash for the title between Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and eventual champion Alan Kulwicki -- the real sea change was affected by the 21-year-old transplanted Indianan whose car wound up hooked to a wrecker. That was very much a different time, when the Cup Series was dominated by men old enough to have kids of college age, who could work on vehicles as well as drive them, and knew no other way of life. There was a process: You started in junk, proved you could take care of it, and by middle age with a little luck and seasoning finally worked your way into a good car.

Drivers of Gordon's youth and experience level weren't supposed to start their careers in fully-funded, championship-caliber cars fielded by organizations like Hendrick Motorsports. Young drivers wrecked cars, so the feeling went, and wrecked cars were expensive. And Gordon didn't do much to deter that mindset in his rookie season of 1993, when he failed to finish 11 times. Two years later, though, he won the championship. The next year, he began a run of dominance that would go unrivaled until Jimmie Johnson's arrival. Overnight the mold was broken, and car owners began scouring the hinterlands for the next Jeff Gordon, and NASCAR was forever changed as a result.

Suddenly this was a young man's sport, and in came hotshots like Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne and the Busch brothers, and the once-frowned-upon practice of putting young drivers in top-flight race cars became a sponsor-driven necessity. Not all of them have worked out, of course. But many have, and as a result the level of competition in what is now called the Sprint Cup tour became as heated and as aggressive as ever. The implementation of the Chase in 2004 only stoked the fire even more. Thanks in part to Gordon's early successes, NASCAR is now a sport dominated by brash, talented, fearless young drivers who don't always show respect toward their elders, and will sometimes do whatever it takes to win.

Which in turn can make winning exceedingly difficult. Gordon bridged the generations and took NASCAR by storm, accumulating almost half of his career victory total in a single four-year span. A similar feat is almost unimaginable today, when starting fields are deeper, and when drivers can win six times in a one season and none the next. As great as Jimmie Johnson has been in his run of consecutive championships, no one has left the sport as awestruck as Gordon did in winning 10 races in 1996, 10 more in 1997, and a boggling 13 -- including six of seven at one point -- in 1998. But all that happened in a different time. These days, drivers are about as likely to replicate that run as they are Petty's untouchable 1967 mark of 10 victories in a row.

How good was Gordon in his prime? Good enough that some wondered if he could approach Petty's record of 200 victories, or at the very least surpass Pearson's second-place mark of 105 -- not an outrageous assertion at the time, given that the guy had 50 wins before his 29th birthday. In retrospect, of course, it all seems like crazy talk; much of Petty's career was spent in an era where drivers could compete three times a week if they so chose, in a monstrous schedule that wasn't pared down until the sport entered its modern era in 1972. But Gordon was so good, so young, and was such a game-changer in his sport, that at one point his potential seemed limitless.

That even Gordon's relentless victory pace was slowed illustrates the difficulties other drivers will have in catching or surpassing him. Every now and then we have a team that hits on something and rolls up a nice win total, but they rarely reach double-digits anymore, and those runs almost never last more than a single season. The wealth is now spread among many more winners, and the feast-and-famine cycles are much more pronounced, and the Chase keeps so many teams in the championship picture for so much longer that some programs fall further behind because they aren't prepared for the next year. Winning in NASCAR has always been hard. It's never been more difficult than it is right now.

So savor this moment with Gordon, because we may never experience it again. Eighty-five wins is such a huge number that greats like Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Mark Martin, all lock first-ballot future Hall of Famers, never came close. Today, only Johnson seems capable of threatening his former mentor's position on the all-time list, and that would require a lot to go right in a sport where change is inevitable and the next season can bring a wild swing of fortune. Top-tier drivers now make more money earlier in their careers, have more varied outside interests, and are less likely to stay in the car until they have to be pried out. The evolution of NASCAR that began with Gordon's debut in 1992 continues, and with every passing year 85 victories seems like a less attainable -- and more magical -- career milestone indeed.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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