4-Time NASCAR Champion Jeff Gordon On This Weekend’s Daytona 500 And 2020 Season

By Mark Ewing - Forbes

“Daytona is always exciting. It’s a super-speedway, huge packs, bump drafting. I’m fascinated by drivers who can separate themselves in that environment and be so calm in the closing laps. Denny Hamlin, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, last year’s winner, says it’s like a chess match and you have to think several steps ahead to make those moves,” says 4-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. The Daytona 500 runs this Sunday at 2:30 eastern, kicking off NASCAR’s 72nd season.

“At Daytona we have the 550-horsepower package, big spoiler, big front splitter, a lot of downforce. Last year at Daytona the cars were a bit of a handful in tight packs bumping and banging, especially as they do in the late stages of a race. The super-speedway aero package was not adopted last season until Talladega, but this year it should give the drivers more confidence and let them be more aggressive on the Daytona high banks,” says Gordon, whose total of 93 career wins is the highest in modern “Cup racing” history.

Gordon knows the high banks, having won the Daytona 500 three times. He retired from NASCAR five years ago and joined FOX Sports, where he is now partnered with Mike Joy in the FOX booth. Daytona is the birthplace of NASCAR, and the high banks of the track are the sport’s equivalent of The Green Monster at Fenway or the frozen tundra of Green Bay’s Lambeau Stadium during an NFL playoff game, or the high-speed corner Eau Rouge at the Belgian Grand Prix, where the measure of the man is whether or not he lifts off the gas. Daytona Speedway has defined NASCAR, the country’s most successful race series.

As the 2020 season unfolds, NASCAR’s engineering contingent and rules makers will be reimagining the sport for 2021. A seismic shift is coming. This is the last season for the Gen-6 “Cup cars” that retain traditional stock car technologies that can be traced in rough concept to the beginnings of the sport. The 2020 season and the Daytona 500 represent both a swan song and a pinnacle year for a sport that has shunned technological advancement in favor of a great show, in favor of intensely competitive racing. The 2021 rules could attract more manufacturers, and also top-shelf international drivers.

The 2021 cars will appear little different, but will feature carbon-fiber architecture just like Formula One, Indycar and Le Mans prototype. Gas-electric hybrid powertrains that can provide a “push-to-pass” burst of power from an electric motor to enhance overtaking, independent rear suspension, sequential-shift gearboxes, much taller and wider tires that better reflect technology used on high-performance road cars, and a host of other safety- and performance-related technologies will change the series. Teams should require fewer supporting personnel and thus be less expensive to field, which could improve the chances for smaller teams to flourish. The 2021 cars will be faster and more capable, particularly on road courses. They will reflect the passenger car technologies of our decade, and not of the American auto industry from the 1940s to ‘80s. It will be easier for NASCAR to market its premiere racing series in Europe and Latin America.

But final evolutions of any product usually offer the best results, and this Sunday could be a Daytona 500 for the ages. “I’m excited about 2020,” says Gordon, “and if I can find a way to balance out the message to the fans, I’d say, ‘Hey, we have a great product and I think we’re going to have a great NASCAR season. Daytona this week will build off the momentum of the Super Bowl being on FOX Sports.” When asked about 2021, Gordon politely declined, stating, “I am excited about what will be introduced to the sport next year, and you can come talk to me in September or October as we get closer and there’s been more testing. I’m happy to follow up with you.”

NASCAR offers a path for drivers who prove themselves in regional series run on dirt tracks and short ovals. “I came up through dirt tracks and sprint cars,” says Gordon, whose parents moved from California to the Midwest before he reached Kindergarten to foster his talent. “I like to see drivers with that dirt background. We see it in Kyle Larson, who is spectacular, puts it right up against the fence. You have Christopher Bell, a rookie who has that background. I think it’s great for the future of the sport. No matter if you come up through Late Models or Modifieds or open-wheel cars like sprint cars or midgets, the key is you can’t be in any series for too long because if you’re not going to be adaptable to different competitors, different types of race cars and tracks, you’re probably not going to make it at the Cup level because you have to be able to make that car maneuver around a lot of different kinds of tracks. And you learn to give great feedback to the team to separate yourself from the other competitors.”

NASCAR marketing has been built around driver rivalries, big personalities and battles that have led ultimately to a passing of the torch, a shift in fan loyalties. NASCAR doesn’t carry it as far as Conor McGregor and the denizens of the MMA octagon with brawls in the streets, but the rivalries can be entertaining, sometimes including a punch, a shoving match or a thrown helmet. The show most definitely includes taunts delivered through the media—Donald Trump could take lessons.

“I wish we had an organic rivalry right now, but I guess you can say we do between Joey Logano and Kyle Bush, or just Kyle Busch and everyone else because he’s been so dominant and he has a personality that can sometimes…clash with fan bases or other competitors. It’s going to take someone who can battle Kyle, take him on. Not someone who is a teammate—it’s hard to have a rivalry on the same team. Is it Kevin Harvick? Or Chase Elliott at Hendrick or Kyle Larson at Chip Ganassi? It would be nice to see them go head to head. It’s important to have that rivalry.”

Gordon is a successful driver who has transitioned to team ownership and mentoring younger drivers, and television coverage. Gordon mentored 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson, helping form a team around him. Gordon has an ownership interest in one of the Hendrick Motorsport cars, driven by Chase Elliott, arguably the most popular and likable driver on the circuit and the son of “Awesome Bill” Elliott, the 1988 NASCAR champion who was voted the series’ most popular driver 16 times. Family dynasties and tradition matter.

“Michael Waltrip has owned a car while working with FOX,” Gordon says of 2-time Daytona 500 winner Waltrip. “I really try to separate that. I have inside knowledge of what the drivers and teams are facing and what they’re doing with the cars to make them go faster. That adds to what I bring in the booth. At the same time, you can’t give away any speed secrets. And I don’t want to show bias. I’ve been criticized for that, but I work hard not to. If I talk about Chase Elliott, I’m criticized, but he is the most popular driver out there and he won three races last year, so sometimes it’s hard to take that criticism when I’m trying to cover the sport the best way I know how.”

Fan engagement in all forms of motorsport has entered the digital realm, as more and more racing is viewed on handheld devices rather than big screens in family rooms. Driving simulators that connect to the iRacing digital gaming platform have radically changed the relationship between racing series and their fans.

“There’s a fine line between fan engagement and getting gimmicky,” says Gordon. “I love the idea of being able to ‘ghost race’ in an actual live race . I think that would be very cool. We’ve seen iRacing and the eNASCAR racing league taking off.” Presaging the 2021 rules and technology changes, Gordon says, “In the future we might see something that enhances passing with the powerplant , or DRS like they have in Formula One.”

But Gordon is not warm to all the fan engagement methods European series have explored. “I would not want to see..."

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