Thirteen years ago this month, with the sport still reeling from the loss of its Intimidator, a Rainbow Warrior cut through battle to earn NASCAR Cup title number four. Just 30 years old, Jeff Gordon was no Dale Earnhardt, Sr., either in personality or presence, but the stat sheet told us a different story. With the best team, a new crew chief in Robbie Loomis and the tragic death of Earnhardt, it looked like reaching the mystical number seven, NASCAR’s championship record, was becoming a realistic possibility. Gordon, armed with a squeaky clean image, a Miss America-type wife and the support of multi-million sponsor DuPont, looked poised to lead NASCAR into a new era of growth and prosperity.
Instead, as the checkered flag fell at Phoenix Sunday, Gordon still finds himself stuck at four, forced to wait another year for that breakthrough to jolt him back from the depths of perpetual heartbreak. 43 years old now, graying hair replacing those boyhood looks, the father of two, divorced and now remarried, sees Father Time draw ever closer in his rear-view mirror. It’s been an eventful decade-plus of solid, yet declining performance for the cornerstone of Hendrick Motorsports, a man whose success has been eclipsed in large part by teammate Jimmie Johnson. The torch for that drive for seven has been passed, the No. 48 undergoing the same type of pressure and criticism Gordon once endured every week. Now, he’d be happy with five, simply pushing for one more title so his children, Ella and Leo could remember a time when their father stood atop the stock car world.
Finally, this year it looked like Gordon could make it happen, climbing back atop the Hendrick totem pole with the perfect mix of consistency and contention. Leading the points most of the year, he ended the regular season atop the standings and remained a formidable foe throughout the Chase. Four victories, his most since 2007, include the prestigious Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis. 14 top-5 finishes, paired with 22 top-10 results, are the most in each category for him since 2009.
For Gordon, it was a renaissance year, one that would have him leading the points by 29 without a playoff reset. Surely, his season deserved a place in NASCAR’s final round, in position to challenge fellow contenders Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano for the big prize this Sunday. A runner-up finish at Phoenix, after entering the weekend tied for the fourth and final Chase spot, would appear to be enough to push him through.
Or not. Gordon’s Chase, in the first year of NASCAR’s new format, was victimized by his inability to push anyone else around. On the final restart Sunday, with Harvick in another stratosphere, Gordon refused to put the bumper to the back of the No. 4 car. Racing clean, he came to the checkers with little more than a dust mark on the side of his Chevrolet, filled with pride but problematic in that he didn’t control his title destiny. A few seconds back, a winless Ryan Newman, who has as many top-5 finishes (four) as Gordon has victories this season decided rubbing fenders was his only way to make the Final Four. Rubbing, slamming, squeezing his way past Kyle Larson, through turns 3 and 4 earned him another position, an extra point in the standings – and with it, the ability to push Gordon to the sidelines and deny him yet another shot at the series title.
“I hope we taught somebody that you can race clean,” Gordon said after learning it was contact, back in the pack that knocked him out. “[Race clean] and still go out there and give it your best. You don’t have to wreck people to make it in the Chase or win the championship.”
The comments were one final slap to Brad Keselowski, whose contact up front in the closing laps at Texas flattened Gordon’s tire and, in essence his season under this new format. One 29th-place anvil is enough to drag you down in this Eliminator Round, a three-race sprint that two second-place finishes couldn’t fix.
“It’s tough to swallow,” he said before admonishing aggressive behavior like a teenage dad calling out curfew. “Don’t think that that’s not going to come back to you, you know. I mean, I could have taken out Harvick, too, to make it in, but I didn’t.”
No, Gordon didn’t, a Mark Martin style of gentleman racing that’s defined him during the post-Earnhardt era. People forget, but the Rainbow Warrior in the early days had no problem playing bump, run and figure out consequences later. There was the Bristol brouhaha of 1997, a race where Rusty Wallace was shoved out of the way to victory on the final lap. He and Earnhardt weren’t afraid to scrape paint, even during a 13-win season in 1998. But as he aged, Gordon softened, keeping contact to a minimum while emphasizing old-age consistency.
It’s a formula that, had NASCAR never made the Chase, earned him that mythical number “seven.” In 2004 and ’07, the latter of which Gordon had a modern era record 30 top-10 results, he would have been crowned Cup champion. 2014 looks to have unfolded in much the same way; Gordon is DNF free and has just two finishes outside the top 25, easily outpacing Joey Logano in the “old system.” Can you imagine how different the sport might look today if he had captured those trophies?
“That’s just the system that we have,” he said when asked about what might have been. “You’ve got to race a system the way that it’s structured and I’m so proud that I can hold my head up and say that I drove my heart out.”
Still, pride doesn’t fill that gap on the stat sheet when it comes to overall performance. Gordon’s year was defined by the aggressive actions of others, Newman’s final-lap tussle along with the fender-rubbing finish precipitated by Keselowski. Is it a matter of bad luck biting Gordon, unable to fight back, or is he too caught up in pacing himself under NASCAR’s season-long old system? Or, even worse, are the rules written so wildly that one of the sport’s best drivers is doomed to finish second while a circus-like gimmick plays out around him?
“I’m a little concerned where it could go with — just like last week we found out on pit road where the line is drawn,” he explained. “And when you cross over that line, I think that it could get to that on the racetrack.”
That line, in 2014 was defined as “push or be pushed back.” Keselowski’s aggressive move at Texas, a product of Gordon giving an opening was a message “clean” doesn’t mean “no contact, ever.” And with the title on the line, two turns left in a season it was Newman, not Gordon manipulating the system with one hard-fought position that gets him a Final Four spot over a guy who, on paper was clearly more deserving. Is it right? Is it wrong? All we know is it kept Gordon from advancing.
“You can never make everybody happy,” Newman said in defending his presence at Homestead – taking up a spot Gordon, Hendrick teammate Earnhardt or Keselowski deserved on paper. “If I was these guys that had wins after that first bracket and their wins didn’t mean anything anymore, I wouldn’t be happy. But I wasn’t one of those guys. [The Chase] played in my favor all the way through.”
Thirteen years later, Gordon’s waiting for the system to break his way. Or maybe he should be breaking more toward the system? It’s hard to tell. NASCAR’s playoff was designed to be a tale of two seasons, to intentionally make it easier for other drivers with a weaker regular season to topple the “number one seed.” Gordon’s fate is no different than top teams during most NCAA Basketball Tournaments; solid, on paper but one upset away from an afterthought. Five months of wins could be thrown out based on five awful minutes.
It’s the new NASCAR, for better or worse. Just try telling Ella and Leo, this Sunday how their Father, who might very well win Homestead is sitting at home with no title while a winless Newman, who ran well behind could sit at the head table above him in Las Vegas. It’s a new reality Gordon needs to adjust to while getting a chance to revisit his performance in the offseason.
He sure raced squeaky clean this season. Just like his shelf will look squeaky clean without a new trophy sitting front and center.