The Frontstretch: Once the kid, Gordon's the veteran now by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday February 6, 2005

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Once the kid, Gordon's the veteran now

Thomas Bowles · Sunday February 6, 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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Jack Chandler
02/07/2005 04:14 PM
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I don’t see Gordon as a strong leader at all. At least not like Earnhardt was.

And I bet that delights the powers that be in Daytona. Chances are that they don’t want to have a strong figure representing the drivers. They would much rather be the strong part of the association. It makes their job that much easier.

Hopefully a truly strong leader will emerge. It’s seems more likely that it will come from the owners though. With the multiple team ownership that has been around for several years, it seems that a single owner could thin out a field considerably on race day by qualifying his cars and not showing up.

Not sure that anything that drastic is called for now though. Hopefully everything will run smoothly with NASCAR’s new leadership and the current owners and drivers.
Merci Humphrey
02/07/2005 08:24 PM
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Earnhardt? a leader? He intimidated people into listening to him as much as he intimidated, or more like bullied them, on the track.

I see Gordon stepping up to the proverbial plate and being a great leader in this ever -growing sport….He is articulate, soft-spoken , well-versed and contrary to what Jr fans think, he is well-liked and respected by the other drivers , the media and the public.
NASCAR needs a spokeman or ‘leader’who can speak up for the needs of the drivers,not a car owner whose main goal is for the good of his team or a NASCAR representative who only cares about the mighty dollar or trying to fix what was never broken
Lisa Graves
02/08/2005 11:51 AM
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Jeff Gordon will make an exellent leader. HE is very good at speaking his opinion to Nascar. HE is not afraid of Nascar like alot of people think. They think he talks to much about his sponsors but that is his job to talk about the sponsors. It is hard to think of him as a vetern though he don’t look like a vetern. The Media loves Jeff and Nascar does also I think they will listen to Jeff. Jeff also learned alot from Dale Sr.
Kathi
02/09/2005 05:47 AM
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I dont think Earnhardt was a leader, but Closer to bulling his way to the front> his way or no way and lord dont do it back to him .
Jeff Gordon will probably be a good leader, I think he has a good message to say to drivers and fans. Even thru the boos and jeers, People konw him as a great winner . Tony Stewart I think carries just as much weight as any driver, as he can drive anything and has one in every division hes been in. He speaks his mind and pulls no punches and stands up for the drivers and what’s right and wrong. For you to say he didnt carry much wieght or character with others, Your wrong.

To me, Nextell and Big Mike are the leaders, what they say goes regardless what anyone else thinks or feels. HE could care less if hes right or wrong, hes in aposition to change things and does at his beck and call. Im not sure there is room for another leader in Nascar with all the BIG SHOTS TAKING OVER.

 

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