Thomas Bowles · Sunday November 27, 2005
I never thought the day would come when I’d say this, but it’s true: Jeff Gordon is on the downside of his career.
Now before you call me crazy, hold on. Just because he’s on the downside doesn’t mean Gordon’s skills have deteriorated. But consider this: 2005 marks the 13th full season for Jeff in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series. A rookie at 21, Gordon will turn 34 during the season, and make his 400th career start. That’s more starts then most Cup drivers get their entire careers, and 350 more than 30-something stars Greg Biffle, Tony Raines, and Scott Riggs.
And the chances that Gordon will make it 13 more seasons is unlikely at best. Season 26 would see Gordon at 47 years old, with all of those years smack in the middle of NASCAR’s modern era of 7-day-a-week demands on your time, your mind, and ultimately, your body through a 36-race, 40-week regular-season. No one knows how much longer he’ll go, but if we get another decade out of Jeff in the 24 car, I’d consider NASCAR Nation blessed (or cursed, depending on what side you root for).
And so 2005 is about to begin, with perhaps a new era and a new role staring Gordon in the face. The last veterans who made their names during the Dale Earnhardt era of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are hanging up their helmet—- legends who were once the face of the sport, names like Wallace, Martin, Elliott, and Labonte. But come the end of this season, not one of them will be running full-time schedules on the tour, and other veterans like Rudd, Marlin, and Jarrett aren’t far behind. Wallace may be the biggest loss; mellowed since Earnhardt’s death in 2001, he’s become an important leader in such issues as driver safety, and he’s never afraid to speak up, both on the track and off it, to give his opinions on the state of the sport. For example, while most people don’t approve of the pension plan, everyone respects him enough to at least listen to his ideas; just think if Robby Gordon proposed such a plan. He’d be laughed out of the room.
All these retirements will are begging the question: who’ll step up and be NASCAR’s elder statesman? An outspoken, media-friendly driver like Jeff Burton comes to mind, but barring a miraculous career turnaround at Childress (which very well may happen) he no longer has the star power you need in order to inherit such a role. 34-year-old Tony Stewart? I can’t believe I just asked that question; Tony may be outspoken, but he’s not respected enough by the powers-that-be to have his opinions carry any staying power amongst his peers. Bobby Labonte? A talented driver for years to come who will last well into his 40s, but a different type of leader who’s too quiet in front of the media to take on the job.
Which leaves us with Gordon. The poster child for the beginning of NASCAR’s “young gun” era, Gordon has it all: 4 championships, the most of any driver not named Petty or Earnhardt; 2 Daytona 500 victories; and a media-friendly, easy-going personality. Most importantly, Gordon has the skills and the star power to speak up and challenge NASCAR when he doesn’t agree with something, a power fewer and fewer people have in the face of NASCAR’s “no negative talk” policy they seem to be developing. It’s a delicate role, one that shouldn’t be abused for fear of being overly critical; you need to pick your battles, and speak wisely so that NASCAR will actually listen when you disagree.
And Gordon’s in a delicate spot. The role of the veteran is one that Gordon now gets within his own group of teams, whether he likes it or not. With the semi-retirement of Terry Labonte, Gordon is the only one of the four full-time Hendrick drivers out of his twenties; one, in Kyle Busch, hasn’t even reached that age. And with some of the biggest cogs in the internal Hendrick organization tragically gone in an October plane crash, the group is in need of a calm, guiding veteran presence more than ever. Brian Vickers lost his best friend and biggest supporter in Ricky Hendrick; Kyle Busch lost an important person in Ricky also, and let his teenage years shine through as he dealt with the emotions and weight of the tragedy.
Don’t get me wrong, the Hendrick group reacted well. But it’s what happens after the adrenaline wears off that lets you know how well you recover. Consider what happened when Ray Evernham left the 24 team in 1999. Gordon’s team initially worked well, winning at Martinsville with new crew chief Brian Whitesell and performing decently the rest of the 1999 season. It was in 2000 that Gordon’s team and literally the whole Hendrick organization struggled, adjusting to the new leadership style presented by crew chief Robbie Loomis. And this time, there’s a heck of a lot more people and personalities to replace.
Gordon will need to fight that struggle to move on as the leader now, all while helping the two younger drivers along in their careers the same way he was helped by teammates Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader in the early 1990s. And he’s also got his own issues to deal with. In 1998, a 13-win season and a dominating third championship had people believing Gordon might have 10 titles by the end of this decade. Come 2005, and he’s only got one more championship, and drivers like Busch, Stewart, Earnhardt Jr., Newman, and even teammate Johnson breathing down his neck, challenging his position as dominant driver in the series.
Still, Gordon remains the most recognizable face in and out of NASCAR. And in an era with disappearing race tracks, race teams, strange qualifying systems, and a snuffing out of any possible criticism, the sport needs more than ever someone with a future in it who understands the difference between right and wrong, and the ability to speak up in either situation.
It’s hard to imagine that the slim, 19-year-old kid with a moustache who took the Busch Series by storm in 1991 would grow up to be the veteran to help guide this sport in the right direction. But it’s Gordon’s role to inherit. Let’s hope he embraces it.
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