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The Yellow Stripe: Is Jeff Gordon’s Drive for 5 Permanently Stalled?

The whimsical 1986 movie Short Circuit, starring those giants of the big screen, Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg, is a story about the mad cap adventures of an artificially intelligent robot named “Number Five.” The premise of the tale sees the U.S. military designed and owned robot brought to “life” by a freak power surge. It’s a heartwarming, if somewhat flippant tale, and those fans of the movie will certainly remember the robot at one point screaming to Ally Sheedy’s character that “Number Five is Alive!”

Relating this back to NASCAR and yeah, I bet you were wondering if I was actually going to get there, in the case of one Jeffrey Michael Gordon from Vallejo, Calif., number five is not very much alive. Instead, if you’ll forgive the crass reference, Gordon’s “Drive for Five” has very much “short-circuited” all over again. Barring an alien abduction of the entire No. 48 team, the minute Jimmie Johnson starts his engine at Homestead-Miami, Gordon’s quest for a fifth championship will be officially over for 2009 – the eighth straight year the sport’s biggest trophy has been gift-wrapped for someone else instead.

Now, at 38 years old, time is quickly running out for a man who’s well into the second half of his driving career. Suddenly, the question becomes whether can Gordon crest the hump and finally put a Sprint Cup trophy on his already burgeoning mantelpiece to go along with those four he won during the Winston era.

The answer, folks, appears to be “probably not.”

Before we get to the reasons why, let’s take a quick glance at Gordon’s incredible and impeccable credentials. For starters, he’s a four-time Cup champion. Only the two first ballot Hall of Famers, King Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. have won more titles with seven apiece. He sits sixth on the all-time wins list with 82 – one behind Cale Yarborough and two behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison – so by the time he hangs up his driving gloves, he should be in third place behind only David Pearson (105 wins) and Petty (200 wins). He’s won, just for the record, a staggering 14.1% of the races he’s entered (580) and of active drivers only (surprise, surprise) Jimmie J ranks above him at a 16.2% clip.

Gordon also sits fourth on the all-time poles list – one behind Cale, again – and has an average finish of 12.3. He’s led 20,738 laps, won three Daytona 500s (1997, 1999, 2005) four Brickyard 400s (1994, 1998, 2001, 2004), including the inaugural event, and three All-Star challenges (1995, 1997, 2001). Add to this list a record nine road-course victories, a restrictor-plate best 12 victories, six wins at the revered Darlington, and you’ve got one heck of a career resume to flaunt. Oh, and did I mention he’s married to the smoking hot Ingrid? OK, that’s not strictly relevant… but I felt it was worth pointing out.

In short, then, Gordon has done just about everything in NASCAR. If he never drove another lap in anger on the Sprint Cup circuit, he would go down as arguably one of the top-five best drivers in the history of the sport. But the trouble is, you can’t help but feel Gordon won’t be truly satisfied until he gets his hands on a Sprint Cup title to go along with all the other accolades and achievements that have been the hallmark of his career.

So let’s start with his most obvious impediment: Jimmie Johnson.

With the best will in the world, there still must be days when Gordon rues the recommendation he gave Mr. Hendrick to employ Johnson some eight years ago. If it wasn’t for Johnson, he would already have had his fifth title back in 2007. After a regular season of metronomic brilliance, Gordon averaged a 5.1 finish in the Chase and had a lowest finish of 11th through 10 races. But his teammate and the man he shares office space with was even better, winning four of the last five races, averaging a 5.0 finish, and running away with the title by some 77 points. In 2004, the inaugural year of the Chase, Gordon was even closer, missing out by an agonizing 16 markers over Kurt Busch when one poor finish at Atlanta really wrecked his chances. At some point, after so many near-misses, in a sport where confidence in your ability cannot be overestimated, you can start believing it’s not meant to be. Just ask Mark Martin (bless him). It’s not just Jimmie, however, as despite all the many and varied criticisms there are of NASCAR today, one thing is undeniable: The competition is better and harder than ever before in the sport’s history. That plays a role, no question, for a man who’s been there, done that for nearly 20 years in the sport.

Another factor is his life circumstances, if you’ll pardon the banal way of putting that. Let me be clear here, I’m not suggesting for a minute that the birth of his daughter Ella has made him a worse driver. I don’t have children (yet) so I can’t speak from experience here, but all my friends who do tell me the moment they had their first child their lives changed irrevocably. It’s not a reason, but it’s a factor. After all, who doesn’t make their kids a number one priority? So again, I’m not saying Gordon’s not as dedicated as he was when he had the most ridiculous piece of upper-lip facial hair in the history of mustaches, but his priorities have shifted some, and that can play into things – especially in a sport that is defined by the tenths and hundredths of a second. Keep in mind that of the 12 drivers that made the Chase this season, just three have kids.

One thing that may also play into Gordon’s quest is the hard crashes he’s sustained. All drivers who have raced as long as he has have their wrecks to remember, but this man seems to have suffered more than most. There was the 2004 crash when he plowed nose first into Andy Hillenburg‘s spun out car at Darlington, after which he said “I haven’t taken a hit like that, possibly ever, and certainly not a head-on shot.” Then there was the hugely hard lick at Pocono in August 2006, and the equally fierce crash at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2007 when he all but took out the flagstand. In 2008, there was the wreck at Las Vegas when he hit the inside wall with great ferocity, a move which prompted the powers-that-be to install SAFER barriers to go along with those already installed on the outer walls. And last but not least, one final wreck to mention would be the unusual and violent hit he sustained at Watkins Glen in an incident with Sam Hornish Jr. earlier this year. As I said, all drivers take hits, but you can’t help but wonder how the combined effects on all these tough crashes affect Gordon’s back, his overall health, and his long-term prognosis as a Cup driver.

The Chase format probably hasn’t helped this legend, either. While it’s fair to say he runs better than most pretty much anywhere, if you look at his statistics in terms of average finish, only six Chase tracks make his top-20 list. Given the nature of the beast that is this format and given the strength of his teammate Johnson at said Chase venues it’s not, simply put, good news.

Last week, I wrote about Jimmie needing the validation of a fourth championship. I don’t feel it’s quite the same for Jeff. If it happens, fantastic; but if it doesn’t, then he’ll retire as one of the greatest to ever strap on a pair of racing shoes. And despite what racing-reference.info lists as career earnings of $106,758,284, he’s still hard at it each and every week – a fact not lost among his fans and No. 24 haters alike.

So the question remains, can Gordon finally win a fifth title, or will his “Drive For Five” be forever stalled at four? I wouldn’t rule him out, per se. But if I was a betting man (which I’m not, really) my money would not be on Gordon collecting the trophy he’s coveted for so long. He signed up at HMS on a “long-term, lifetime” contract, so there’s no ticking clock as far as a ride goes, but you can’t help but feel he won’t be making the 36-race slog in his fifth decade like the ageless Martin.

Still, fifth championship or not, Gordon’s legacy is rock solid secure. And for a kid who only ever wanted to race, that should be solace enough when he parks his famous No. 24 Chevy for the last time.

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