It happened. I have begun to lose faith.
Sunday afternoon, I turned on the DV-R and began to enjoy Saturday night’s race. I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the No. 24 gain the lead (Jeff Gordon’s been doing that a lot, lately.) But I didn’t jump off the couch in hope that today would be the day (yes, I do manage to stay ignorant of the outcome of the race until I actually watch it).
Rather, I looked at my husband and said, “That’s nice, but it’s not going to last.” And I was right.
Yes, that black & gray National Guard Chevy did manage to pull off a most respectable fourth-place finish despite a late-race pit road debacle. But at no time did I really believe that this run was it, the end of Jeff’s dry spell. Nope. Not happening.
Why not, you ask?
Because, the beginning of the end has started.
I’ve been around this sport long enough to have witnessed the painful final years of competition of several championship drivers (i.e. – Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace and yes, even Dale Earnhardt). Each of them steadily saw fewer and fewer visits to victory lane. Wallace and Earnhardt continued to compete in the top 10 on a regular basis, but something amorphous they used to bring to the track went missing. The amount of muttering in the stands increased. It was time for the new and younger faces to be allowed to climb to the top. Granted, Senior’s life ended before the real debate of retirement gained momentum, but the topic was bandied about.
For Waltrip, his career suffered a more ignominious end as he fought to stay competitive in second-rate equipment. Instead of departing from Cup racing with a quick bow, years passed where his fans worried if he would manage to finish the race, or worse yet, even qualify.
I’m sure it’s hard to make the decision to lay down the steering wheel. Unfortunately, those hardy few that dedicate their weekends to this sport must suffer through the downturn in performance, the change in focus, and even the frustrated interviews after each and every failure.
Failure, you say?
Let’s face it. Drivers such as those that earned their way on to my “Time to Retire” list did not garner legions of fans just because they were cute. That accomplishment is left to second and third-tier racers such as JJ Yeley. Jeff Gordon and company earned their notoriety through winning, and winning a lot. Perhaps it’s unfair, but once you’ve lifted a trophy over 50 times, you kind of come to expect that it will keep happening. I want to see the repeat performance, too. That’s where my warm-fuzzies come from.
For me and my driver, we’ve experienced the thrill of victory 82 times! And topped the phenomenon off with four Cups to boot! We’ve suffered through a divorce, a lost crew chief, back injuries, new babies and some upstart kid that JG hired who started squeezing our team out of the limelight. All this drama, and now it’s accompanied by week after week of near-misses. At some point, you just gotta start thinking… maybe it’s time.
I guess this thought may be in some part rather selfish. After all, Gordon’s stats don’t really support the concept of a driver who is past his prime. His average finish for the 2010 season is 13.2, not even a full position lower from his career average finish of 12.3. He has led over 700 laps this year, nearly 20% of the laps run. And yet…
Gordon is simply not the win-at-all-costs youth he used to be. He shouldn’t be. Time does carve our lives into our souls, and therefore we make different decisions as an adult vs. a youth. Our reactions are tempered.
Does that stop a competitor from choosing to spin out an adversary? Is the memory of pain clouding the impulse to squeeze through a hole, which would most likely end in bent sheetmetal? Or, if the gods are looking kindly on you that day, does the hesitation in making that decision prevent an aging racer from finding victory lane one more time?
I know Gordon is driving one of the best machines available. I don’t doubt for a minute that his pit crew, crew chief and support personnel are still of championship caliber. But I am beginning to wonder, have those golden days have passed us by? Are we not destined to repeat the wonder of a 13-win season?
If so, that’s fine. We’ve had our day in the sun. And there are more than a few hungry young drivers eager to attempt to de-throne the reigning crown prince. As a fan, I will not be left without somebody to watch in wonder. I will still have my happy memories. I just hope that all of them will not become scarred by years of nearly-but-not-quite competition.
I have cheered for a champion these 18 years. I hope to always be able to remember him as such.
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.
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