It’s a natural inclination for ordinary people to put extraordinary athletes on a pedestal. Everyone wants to believe in something special; after all, that’s how the concept of the superhero was born, wasn’t it? Superman becomes a product of our imaginations run wild; we thrive off of those who set records that stand the test of time, and grow to expect feats that raise the bar of success to never before seen levels. Once the accomplishments pile up, a false sense of invincibility sets in; as our minds run away with unprecedented success, we’re led to believe failure is allowed to escape the lives of a select few.
But kryptonite sidetracks even the most gifted every now and then; and as they turn to face their staunchest challenges, it becomes a healthy, natural reminder to everyone that even the most talented can’t avoid the grip of being human. Athletes, after all, have their Achilles’ heel; it’s as unavoidable as the looming tax deadline creeping ever closer for all of us.
But the way Jeff Gordon was performing Sunday, he’d have preferred to fill out a little extra paperwork for the IRS rather than drive his DuPont Chevrolet. With a 43rd-place finish that had you thinking the No. 24 was running with an anchor attached, the four-time champ was faced with a public battle with his biggest weakness; and while the fight was valiant, it showed that career perfection could prove forever elusive.
To see Gordon go around the track at Texas was truly a sight to behold Sunday; at one point, it appeared a middle-aged man trying the Richard Petty Driving Experience for the first time could have run circles around him. The 16-year veteran ran as if he’d never seen the track before, dropping like a rock from the drop of the green flag. Falling through the 30s, Gordon was lapped early; by the 100-lap mark, he was as much of a non-factor as you could be for a man that’s a four-time Cup Series champ.
By the 200-lap mark, that car was in the garage. Gordon himself proved the culprit; after struggling to simply stay above minimum speed, he overcorrected and found himself staring straight at the outside wall. It was a fitting end to a day gone sour, just like the man’s mood; for by the time he exited the car, Gordon proved unable to contain his chagrin for a track that’s hardly been kind to him over the years.
“I was just hanging on every single lap,” he said after watching the chances for at least a reasonable finish end with a visit to the SAFER barrier. “You get frustrated [when] the car is not doing what you want it to do. You’re trying to figure stuff out and change your line and everything, and [when I did that] I lost control and got in the wall.”
But it’s not the first time Gordon has tasted the concrete at Texas. The run marked his third DNF and second 43rd-place finish at the track since it opened in 1997; during that time, the Rainbow Warrior’s also piled up mediocre results of 22nd, 25th, 30th and 31st. Throughout Gordon’s Cup Series career, there’s just two tracks on the circuit in which he hasn’t won: Homestead (0 for 8) and – you guessed it – TMS (0 for 15). With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the man’s confidence isn’t exactly sky high the second he steps foot in the Lone Star State.
“At this track, I’m terrible,” he said, unafraid to mince words. “I can’t get around it, I don’t know what it is. Today, to be off like we were and as slow as we were, I can’t remember the last time we struggled this bad.”
“When the car is off, I am lost here. I mean, I haven’t felt this lost since my rookie year at a racetrack.”
And with that, a tenuous test session was on the agenda the rest of the day, the No. 24 utilizing a wrecked racecar to experiment with different setups that would be more to Gordon’s liking. But with every installation, there appeared limited improvement at best; each time, the driver did his best impression of a moving roadblock before turning back towards the garage for more repairs.
“It’s just boggling my mind,” said Gordon of the team’s inability to find the golden touch. “There are some crazy setups going on in these cars right now, and I guess when you don’t hit it right, it’s not much fun.”
“That’s kind of the way it was for us today, we haven’t sensed anything like that until we got here and we have been way off. [But] we have to find [what’s wrong], because we can’t go through the year like this.”
On the bright side, getting the black eye out of the way only serves to strengthen Gordon’s resolve as he moves further along into his Drive For Five. Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond are three tracks ahead where he’s had plenty of past success; the man’s a superstar who fully understands the expectations placed in front of him.
But on Sunday, that superstar was human; and because of that, he showed us that even the best have a mountain they’ll always struggle to climb.