Jeff has been in a terrible slump ever since Pocono. In three straight races, he has gotten involved in an early race accident. In the last race at Bristol, he finished 23rd because of a blown engine. And although it doesn't look like the #24 team is going to have a typical "Jeff Gordon" finish in the final points standings, Gordon fans should not lose hope. Let's remember that this year has been a learning one for Jeff, and hope that information gained this season will help him greatly next year.
The year 2000 has been a learning year for Jeff Gordon. He came into the season with a totally different team and car. Gone was Ray Evernham, who led him to 3 Winston Cup Championships and 13 wins in one year. Gone were the famed Rainbow Warriors who defected to the #88 team. And in comes the new Monte Carlo. All of this added up to the fans wondering if it could work.
In August of 1999, Ray Evernham made the stunning announcement that he was leaving Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports. The naysayers said that there was no way Jeff could win without Ray. While he won two races in a row right after Ray left, we all know that those cars were set up by Ray and that they used his notes. But, Ray wasn't on the other end of the radio. Brian Whitesell was. He was the one talking to Jeff and making decisions during the race. He deserves the credit for those wins. Jeff's driving wasn't too bad either. Later in 1999, Jeff signed a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports that gave him a percentage of ownership. What a great move that was. I have an opinion about this. I think Ray thought that Jeff might go with him to Dodge. I think Jeff signing that contract was the final break with Ray. Nothing was ever said regarding this. It's just my opinion.
The 2000 season, up to this point, has been similar to the 1993 season. But, Jeff proved that he could win without Ray. He did it in spectacular fashion at Talledega, starting in 36th and flying through the field. He did it at Sears Point, stretching his record of road course wins to an amazing six in a row. These were done with Robbie Loomis on the radio and with a brand new car. The notes from the previous year were no good for this car.
I'll admit that when I heard that Robbie Loomis was coming on board as crew chief, I was a bit skeptical. After all, Robbie had been with Petty Enterprises for 11 years and really didn't have much to show for it. But, I think the combination is good. I think they get along great and they both have a strong faith in God. I don't know if they will ever be great friends off the track, but that's not what Jeff needs. Given some time to gel, the #24 team will be back at the top.
I have noticed some things about Jeff off the track that are different as well. I hae met the man twice. Granted, both times weren't exactly long lengthy conversations with him, but you can get a feel about a person just by watching and listening to him. He's much more relaxed. He seems happier. I think that Jeff was not only getting close to burnout before this year with the sponsor demands, but I think he was getting bored. Yes, there are a few tracks that he hasn't won at yet, but he's won everything else that there is to win in Wintson Cup. I don't think there were enough challenges for him. He coasted to the 1997 championship. 1998 was a closer finish, but he won 13 times that year! Now, he really has to work at what he does. Besides, I don't think he's gotten worse this year. I think everyone else has moved up to his par. The competition has gotten much harder. Just look at the pit stops. It used to be that only the Rainbow Warriors were getting the times to beat. Even with a new crew this year, their times haven't gotten worse. Everybody else has times like that too. Who would have thought that there would be a time when teams were getting 15 second pit stops, sometimes even in the 14 second bracket?
There is another thing that Ray would never let Jeff do. He would never let him touch the cars. Other than the gear choice for the road courses, Jeff didn't make major decisions about the car. I think this was bad for Jeff. This is, in part, what gave him the prima donna image. That's different now. While he may not be leaning under the hood at the track, he goes to the shop more often. He is learning more about the cars themselves. He and Robbie make decisions together regarding the set up and what to do during the race. All of this is going to make Jeff a better driver than ever.
While I have great respect for Ray Evernham and his endless knowledge, I think the best thing he did was leave Jeff. Jeff has grown and matured this year. His marriage is better(he spoke of this in an article in my local paper). His belief in God is stronger. In my opinion, he has become a better man. And, in the grand scheme of things, that's more important than what he does for four hours on Sunday.
The Gordon haters said he couldn't do it without Ray. He has proven them wrong. My question is, can Ray win without Jeff? In a few months we'll see.