Jeff Gordon led final practice for the AdvoCare 500 and qualified fifth. Gordon will try for the 85th win of a career that has defined him as the best of his generation. Gordon’s numbers speak in a way that few drivers can boast: his 84 wins are on the all-time list. He has four championships; only three drivers in all of NASCAR’s storied history have more.
Gordon came along at the perfect time for NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt was entering the last years of his prime and Gordon provided the perfect foil for Earnhardt in so many ways. Gordon’s four titles came between 1995 and 2001, and it was Gordon more than any other driver who bridged the gap between two eras. Gordon _was_ an era, really. In the late 90’s, it seemed that it would be only a matter of time until Gordon won more championships, perhaps even the elusive seven, the stuff of legends like Petty and Earnhardt.
Many will argue that perhaps Gordon should be running for that seventh title in 2011, that without the Chase points systems he might have two more titles. But the points system Gordon worked so well is a thing of the past and Gordon is preparing to make a fifth title run this year. Currently sixth in points, Gordon is already assured a Chase berth by starting in Atlanta and Richmond. His two wins will seed him as high as a tie for third; a win in the next two races would move him to a tie for second. Coming off a five-race stretch where he finished lower than sixth only once, Gordon looks poised to make a strong run in the coming weeks. Make no mistake, Gordon is a strong title contender in a year where there is no clear favorite. But he’s got to capitalize.
Gordon is running out of chances.
There are two things at work that make it so. Gordon is 40 years old now, and statistics suggest that wins and championships tail off after that age. Not only is the driver formerly known as Wonder Boy getting older, but he also has tremendous competition from a passel of younger drivers, all of whom are fierce, talented competitors: not only Gordon’s protégé, Jimmie Johnson, but also Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Brad Kesleowski. And while, save perhaps Johnson, it’s unlikely that any of these drivers will match Gordon’s career numbers, they are doing something else: standing between Gordon and even bigger numbers.
Is 2011 Gordon’s last change at glory? Probably not. But Gordon himself has said that as he gets older, he realizes that each win could be his last. Those halcyon summers of the late 1990’s are far behind him, and while Gordon has become the defining driver of those years, he’s not defining _these_ years. Seven championships, realistically, is out of the realm now, unless he’s going to win them as a car owner. And one thing you can bank on about Jeff Gordon is that while that would be nice in a feather-in-the-cap kind of way, he doesn’t want to win them through Jimmie Johnson.
If Jeff Gordon retired tomorrow, he’d go down as one of the finest drivers ever to grace the seat of a stock car. Symbolically, Gordon is the bridge between two eras, and he made that bridge the Jeff Gordon Era, standing on its own as a reign of terror that made fans gnash their teeth and wish Gordon things like a nice meeting of the minds, preferably with a retaining wall. That’s changed; Gordon still gets some loud boos when he’s introduced, but he also gets an increasing number of cheers as fans realize that they have seen something special in Gordon’s career.
Jeff Gordon won’t back down with the championship on the line. He never has, and he isn’t about to start now. He could very well be the guy on the stage in Homestead hoisting the silver trophy at last (his four titles are all Winston Cups). But if Gordon is going to make that title run, he needs to do it soon. As the Jeff Gordon era draws slowly to a close, Gordon isn’t going to go gently. He’ll go with a roar…and maybe another big trophy or two as the years do finally close in.
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