Jeff Gordon just tied Dale Earnhardt with 76 all-time wins. All the Jeff Gordon fans will no doubt find scores of reasons why he is better, and the Dale Earnhardt fans will likely be able to do the same. Let's try to put a little perspective on it.
Here goes, wish me luck.
Let’s look at the numbers first, shall we? I’ve looked at Gordon’s first 13 yrs in NASCAR (1993-2005 inclusive) and compared them to Earnhardt’s first 13 yrs (1979-1991 inclusive). Here is what I found:
73 Wins (16.7%)
199 Top 5 (45.6%)
269 Top 10 (61.6%)55 Poles (12.6%)
5.0 Average finish in the points
48 Wins (12.5%)
173 Top 5’s (45.4%)
251 Top 10 (65.8%)
13 Poles (3.4%)
4.3 Average finish in the points
So what does this all mean? To me it means this: Even though Gordon has a better winning percentage, Earnhardt is the more consistent driver. The most telling stats are the Top 10 finishes 61% to 65% (rounded down), the average finish in the point standings 5.0 to 4.3, and of course the number of Championships 4 to 5. To me Poles mean nothing, it just proves that you can run fast for one lap by yourself. Besides, since Earnhardt had the Past Champion’s Provisional he often didn’t care about qualifying speeds and concentrated more on race set up. Remember, back in Earnhardt’s 13 years they had a special motor for qualifying and another for race day, unlike it has been the last few years where you race what you qualified with. Based solely on these statistics, Earnhardt is the better driver. But wait, I hear the Gordon supporters starting to raise some issues before they have even finished reading this post.Let’s look at some of the issues that will be raised by the Gordon camp.1) The fields weren’t as competitive when Earnhardt raced his first 13 years as they were when Gordon raced his first 13. True enough, but Earnhardt did this while racing for 4 different race teams (if you count Childress twice – pre-Bud Moore and post-Bud Moore) and driving for 2 different car manufacturers. Gordon has had the luxury of having one team owner, albeit he has had several Crew Chief changes over the years, but that isn’t as bad as trying to get used to a totally new team environment etc. Also, Gordon has had the luxury of having been part of a multi-car team and the resources that go with it, where Earnhardt didn’t.2) Jeff has raced 50 more races than Dale in his first 13 years, so that brings his averages down. Fair enough, but I’m sure if Dale had the opportunity to race 50 more races during his first 13 yrs his averages wouldn’t have gone down. In fact, I’m quite sure his Top 10 average would have gone up, but we’ll never know so it’s a mute point.
3) The pressures put on today’s drivers to meet the sponsor’s needs are too distracting and that wasn’t an issue "back in the day". Try racing to put food on your table, or being the current Cup Champ without a ride, or with a start-up team with big time motor problems – yep no pressure there.
In the end, just looking at the performance in their first 13 years it appears that Earnhardt comes out on top. Sorry Gordon fans. Does that mean that Jeff Gordon won’t ever become better than Earnhardt? No, it just means that Earnhardt is the better driver statistically over their first 13 years of Cup racing. In five years that may change when we do a head to head comparison to the first 18 years of their respective careers. Who knows, Gordon may even be tied with Earnhardt and Petty with 7 Championships by then. I was once quoted that if anyone stands a chance of breaking the 7 mark it is Jeff Gordon, and I still believe that.
I mean, we can beat this horse further by comparing their backgrounds (open wheel dirt vs. closed wheel dirt, other accomplishments (time between winning Rookie of the Year and 1st Championship), IROC races and championships, and so on. But in the end it is going to come down to opinion no matter how many facts are laid out in front of you. You are either a Gordon fan or an Earnhardt fan - I haven’t seen too many people who are both. Which are you? I think you know which one I am, but still the numbers don’t lie. Make of it what you will.