(EXCLUSIVE) CORDELE, Ga. — Despite winning 92 races and four Sprint Cup championships, there are some within NASCAR who believe Jeff Gordon is actually underrated and under-appreciated in terms of his contributions to the sport.
Chief amongst them is NASCAR veteran and current NBC TV broadcaster Jeff Burton.
Attending the SpeedFest Late Model event with his driver son, Harrison, on Sunday, Burton explained that a recent conversation with Mark Martin led him to believe that it may take time for those in NASCAR to acknowledge everything that Gordon has done.
“Mark brought it up one day,” Burton said. “He said, ‘you know, we in the sport don’t give Jeff enough credit for everything that he has done.’ I started thinking about it and he is absolutely right.
“I see that with Jimmie Johnson and a lot of the current drivers in our sport too. When you’re doing it, people don’t give you the credit that you deserve because you’re doing it against the people that have to give you the credit. Competitors don’t typically speak highly of each other in the moment.”
Burton himself is a former rival of the four-time champion with the intense friction between the two defining the boom period of the late 90s. Especially memorable were historic duels at Darlington, Bristol and Richmond in 1998 and 1999.
And Burton certainly hasn’t forgotten their run-in at Texas Motor Speedway in 2010, which led to a shoving contest on the backstretch.
“He’s exceptionally competitive,” Burton said. “He’s got that pretty boy image but he is such a competitive person and always wants to compete at a high level. And for the most part, and even in his down years, he wasn’t terrible. He was extremely consistent and just one of the greats.”
Despite having several examples to choose from, Burton says his favorite on track moment with Gordon occurred at Richmond in September 1998. Gordon was fresh off two consecutive victories and had won six of the previous eight races. But Burton, driving the Roush Fenway No. 99, would not be denied, exchanging the lead with Gordon several times before leading the final 40 laps.
It’s likely the greatest NASCAR race that never gets talked about, Burton said, due in part to the fact that Gordon didn’t win it.
“If you go back and watch it, that’s one hell of a race,” Burton said. “That is one of the best races ever and it doesn’t receive the accolades for some reason — probably because I won instead of him.
“We ran side-by-side and never touched each other. It was just a good race and one of the best NASCAR races that never makes the ‘best of’ lists, which is ridiculous … even after Richmond we both said some things we regretted and did some things we regretted but we have a great deal of respect for each other.”
That respect leads Burton to believe that Gordon will be a championship contender again, entering his final full season.
“When an icon is retiring it does change the game, so it would be good for everyone involved,” Burton said of the potential fanfare surrounding Gordon in the championship mix. “I thought he was going to win the championship last year. Going into the chase, he was my pick. They was the most consistent team and it goes to show you — because they made a few mistakes coming down the stretch — and they got a little complacent in a few areas, I thought, that little bit can cost you.
“They didn’t go for the jugular in a few areas I think they should have but I think we all learned a lot as well. One great thing about Jeff is that he is really smart. Jeff can step back and look at last year, and as things evolve, they can take better advantage of it. There is no reason why they can’t win the championship. Until someone can topple the Hendrick chassis and the Hendrick engine combination consistently, you have to go with one of those guys.”
With that said, Burton did offer a potential pitfall to his last Drive For Five.
“Is he going to race like it is his last year and with energy and excitement or will he be afraid that he will do something wrong because this is his last chance,” Burton said. “You can’t race scared, or scared that something bad will happen, and eventually take him out. He has to race with enthusiasm and not being afraid that a bad race will end his career on a bad note”