There was a time when Jeff Gordon was the last guy you wanted to see on the last lap of a race.
Remember 1997 and 2002, when he bumped Rusty Wallace out of the way to win at Bristol? Or how about that time in 2006, when Gordon wrecked Matt Kenseth at Chicagoland with four laps left en route to victory?
This same Gordon – the one they used to call “Wonder Boy,” a four-time champion and winner of 82 NASCAR Cup races – even refused to back down to the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, when few others dared to cross the Man in Black in his heyday. Behind the clean-shaven, pretty boy face was a guy who would wreck his mother to win, unapologetic for using his fenders if it made the difference between first and second place.
No matter what happens from here, if Gordon never wins another championship or race, he’ll go down as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. Heck, he might even BE the greatest ever.
Yet after years of bravado, here’s where we get to the sad part: Gordon’s days of ruffling feathers and taking a go-for-broke attitude toward checkered and trophy are finished.
OK, well, maybe not completely finished. But they’re certainly Missing In Action. At this point, finishing second has become acceptable for Gordon when the mere mention of the word “runner-up” would have drawn his deepest ire just a few years ago.
Need convincing? You need not go very far back in time.
Look no further than the last two Cup races. In both outings – at Martinsville three weeks ago and last weekend at Phoenix – Gordon was the leader as the field prepared for a green-white-checkered finish. And both times, he faltered.
At Martinsville, you can almost cut the Hendrick Motorsports driver a little slack. He lost to a guy, Denny Hamlin, who had four fresher tires than his own.
But at Phoenix on Saturday night, Gordon restarted along Ryan Newman for the green-white-checkered finish, a man who hadn’t been to victory lane since the 2008 Daytona 500. By almost all accounts, he’s far less talented – and no more hungry to win – than Gordon. Both drivers had taken two tires on the final pit stop, but it was Gordon who was in the catbird’s seat.
Not for long. Newman’s No. 39 motored away from the No. 24 car on the restart and never looked back. Just like that, another victory bid for Gordon was shot to oblivion on the money laps.
Unfortunately, the finishes to the last two races are not isolated occurrences. They’re a microcosm of an emerging trend that has hampered the four-time champ from closing the deal in recent seasons.
It started in 2008 when Gordon, for the first time since his rookie year of 1993, was shut out of victory lane. Then he appeared primed for a return to his old form last season, winning early at Texas Motor Speedway and ending a 47-race losing streak in the process. But Gordon never finished first again, proving no match for teammates Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin as they piled up a combined 12 triumphs on the way to finishing 1-2 in the standings. Instead, the number 2 has become synonymous with Gordon’s career as of late; he’s piled up eleven runner-up finishes since the start of his one-win victory slump in February, 2008.
Gordon returns to Texas this weekend, hoping to rekindle the magic of a year ago. It seems doubtful that will happen, though, given his overall lack of success at TMS (he’d never won there ’till last year) and recent propensity for falling short in late-race battles for the lead.
So the question becomes why Gordon can’t seem to close the deal at the end. Has the 38-year-old simply lost his knack for getting it done at crunch time? Does he no longer have the ability to beat his biggest rivals when it counts? Or is it a lack of willingness to lay it all on the line to win?
I don’t have the answer, but one thing’s for sure: the Gordon of yesteryear wouldn’t have let Newman drive away so easily on that restart at Phoenix. He’d have chased Newman down so hard into the corner that he’d have snatched the lead away or wrecked trying.
So it’s time that Gordon, even if only for a season or two, compete with the kind of desire and passion that made him so successful for so long. It may be the only way to get him back to victory lane on a regular basis; I’m just afraid those days may be gone for good.