Jeff Gordon’s Magical 1998 Season
by Tom Jensen July 29, 2020
Hall of Fame driver, owner and crew chief set the standard for NASCAR excellence during blockbuster 1998 season.
What do you get when a Hall of Fame NASCAR team owner hires a Hall of Fame driver and pairs him with a Hall of Fame crew chief?
Success is what you get. And a whole lot of it at that.
Success in terms of race wins.
Success in terms of championships.
Success in terms of respect.
Which is exactly what happened when NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Jeff Gordon (2019), crew chief Ray Evernham (2018), team owner Rick Hendrick (2017) and the entire Hendrick Motorsports Rainbow Warriors squad hit their stride in the second half of the 1990s, especially during their record-breaking 1998 season.
In the five seasons from 1995-99, Gordon won an astonishing 47 NASCAR premier series races, taking the championship in 1995, ’97 and ’98, and finishing second to his Hendrick teammate and Hall of Famer Terry Labonte (2016) in ’96. Just 16 drivers have won more than 47 races in their entire careers and Gordon won that many in only five years.
The most amazing of Gordon’s seasons came in 1998, when he won 13 races, the highest single-season premier series victory total since Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010) won 13 times in 1975. No one knew it at the time, not even Gordon, but the 1998 season would be a historic one.
In the 22 seasons since Gordon won 13 races, only once has a driver posted double-digit victories in a single year. That was in 2007, when another Hendrick driver, Jimmie Johnson, won 10 times. That’s it. No one has even gotten close to the 13 wins Gordon had in ‘98.
“You didn’t realize how special it was at the time like I do now. … I certainly did not appreciate that as much as I do today,” says Gordon. “To me, when that (Chevrolet) Monte Carlo came along in ’95, and we as an organization at Hendrick Motorsports, we as the 24 team with Ray Evernham, the Rainbow Warriors and everything, we put it all together. When you add that up to the performance of that Monte Carlo, I knew that we were going to go on a tear and we did. I didn’t know it was going to be that much of a tear.”
What was most remarkable about the ’98 season was the second half of the year. Gordon won three times in the first 15 races, which for most drivers would have been great. But then he caught fire, winning 10 of the final 18 races of the season. In 1998, Gordon won the Coca-Cola 600, the Southern 500, the second race at Daytona International Speedway, the Brickyard 400 and the two road course races at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
I knew that we were going to go on a tear and we did. I didn’t know it was going to be that much of a tear.
— Jeff Gordon
In late July, Gordon launched a four-race winning streak, extending it to six wins in seven races; he ended the season by winning three of the final four races. “From about race 14 to the final race of the year of that ’98 season, any time I look at those stats, I go, ‘Wow, that right there was impressive,’” says Gordon. No question about it.
According to Evernham, Gordon’s talent and drive helped push the team to championship heights. “We all tried to get better every week because Jeff was so good,” says Evernham. “We knew we had the best driver out there. We knew we had the best driver, the best car owner, engines. We knew we had the best stuff. So if we didn’t win, it was kind of our fault.”
We knew we had the best driver, the best car owner, engines.
— Ray Evernham
“I really respect his talent. I was quite jealous of him,” says Wallace of Gordon. “He came along, kicking our butts and that’s when I was winning a ton of races, (Dale) Earnhardt was winning a lot of them, and here comes this young kid and he starts whuppin’ up on us pretty good, and I’m like, ‘Man, what’s going on here?’ He was flamboyant, he was aggressive, and that’s cool. But we had a lot of natural talent.”
I really respect his talent. I was quite jealous...
— Rusty Wallace
“Jeff was tough. He knew how to race. He knew how to race well,” says Elliott. “And that’s really what defines a guy, especially a young guy.”
Team owner Hendrick, who signed Gordon even before he had a sponsor, saw the potential early on. “I knew if we built something around him, he’d be great,” says Hendrick. “Didn’t know he would be as great as he was, but I just thought he was special.”
That he was.