The year 2015 marks the final full-time season from Jeff Gordon, who will undoubtedly go down as one of the best drivers in NASCAR history. While it is sad to think Gordon will be done after this season, the good news is we can spend the whole season celebrating his career. Odds are good we could see Gordon drive in the Sprint Cup Series after 2015, but when it comes to Daytona it is a big NO to running here again. “I definitely won’t be running another restrictor plate race,” Gordon told media members last week.
While he won’t be back at Daytona past this season, this is as good as any time to take a look back at five of his most memorable moments in the race. I’m not ranking these moments, so I will go with the good default of chronological order.
1993 – You could not write a script as good as Gordon’s debut Daytona 500 was. The Thursday before the race he led 29 of 50 laps to win his qualifying race. That put him starting third and despite his inexperience, just his second Sprint Cup Series start, Gordon brought his DuPont Chevrolet home in the fifth place. Along the way he led two laps and had a great seat to watch the “Dale and Dale show” while battling Geoff Bodine for position.
1997 – The high of his first Daytona 500 was topped the next season when he finished one spot better in fourth. Then the rug came out from underneath him with 1995 being a disappointing 22nd place finish and 1996 being a terrible 42nd place finish, retiring after only 13 laps. That led into the 1997 edition of the race where Gordon was not only carrying the burden of a poor finish the year before, but also an ailing car owner. Rick Hendrick was not at the track as he was battling leukemia. Not only did Gordon pull off his first Daytona 500 victory at age 25, but led a Hendrick Motorsports 1-2-3 finish with teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven in toe.
1999 – The obvious picks for this list are Gordon’s three wins, and it was two years after his first triumph he added a second title to his resume. Imagine this three year span that saw Gordon win in ’97, Dale Earnhardt capture his elusive 500 win in ’98, and then Gordon reclaiming the crown the following season. Unlike his ’97 win, Gordon bided his time only leading 17 laps, including the last 11 laps, and holding Earnhardt off by 0.128 seconds. It was the first of seven wins for Gordon on the year as he came up short to win three championships in a row.
2002 – It was not a win, but it was another that Gordon could chalk up as a what-if race. Looking for his third victory in the Daytona 500, Gordon was leading with six laps to go when contact after the caution flag left him spinning and out of contention for the win. Sterling Marlin had tried to get past Gordon during the caution, this was back in the era of racing back to the caution flag, and when Gordon blocked him, Marlin did not give in and left Gordon have the spot. Damage to Marlin’s car opened the door for Ward Burton, who won his only Daytona 500. Surprisingly, this was not the lone controversial moment in the race for Gordon. On lap 150, contact between him and Kevin Harvick triggered the dreaded “big one” in turn number one. In all 18 of the 41 cars on the track were swept up in it, but Gordon received no damage in the fray.
2005 – His most recent victory in the race came on a green/white/checkered finish. Gordon had just taken the lead from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. when the caution flag flew on lap 199 for debris. Nailing the restart, Gordon kept the lead and beat Kurt Busch back to the line by 0.158 seconds for the win. He led 29 laps that day, but it was Tony Stewart who dominated leading 107 of the 203 laps run. It was one of the few bright spots on a disappointing season which saw him finish 11th in the points, one of only two times he was outside the top-10 in his career. The only other season was his rookie year in 1993, where he finished 14th in the standings.