It’s hard to believe the rainbow scheme Jeff Gordon will run at Bristol Saturday night is officially 22 years old. It’s the age Gordon was himself when running as a Cup Series rookie, taking the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet to 14th in the series standings en route to Rookie of the Year. Since then, Gordon has never finished lower than that in points throughout his career; in fact, he’s been outside of the top 10 just once, 11th after missing NASCAR’s Chase cutoff in 2005. It’s a remarkable run of consistency, one that even teammate and handpicked title successor Jimmie Johnson will have trouble matching. A “first ballot” type Hall of Famer, his stats speak for themselves: 92 wins, four championships, the series consecutive starts record should all go well the rest of the year. Gordon’s legacy in the series is secure.
It’s also one he’ll ensure will never be tarnished.
So many athletes damage reputations through the simple act of hanging on to their jobs too long. We write about it in sports all the time; fans experience the pain of past heroes becoming human. It happened in NASCAR with Richard Petty. Darrell Waltrip. Jack Ingram. Heck, in five years we might look back and say we watched Tony Stewart as a shell of his former self. It’s so difficult to embrace retirement at an early age, stomaching reality of diminishing skills where for so many they leave their “office” at 70. 75. Whenever they choose.
Athletes, through the cruel workings of Father Time simply don’t have that type of choice. But it’s hard to tell that to larger-than-life egos, too often confusing the word “legend” for “forever.” In a cruel twist of fate, it’s their belief they can conquer any obstacle, that extra effort which brought them to the top that turns and sends them rolling down the mountain. “I’ve done it before,” they can say to themselves, “So I know I can win again.” But bodies don’t listen to reason, do they? Nor do twentysomethings angling for their place in the sun, building their skill sets the same time aging rivals see theirs crashing down.
Rare is the athlete that sees the end in sight before the experts do. For Gordon, who announced his retirement last December the now 44-year-old made the move after his best season in nearly a decade. Four wins marked his highest total since 2007; for much of the regular season, he led the points standings. Never known as a great closer, Gordon had struggled through much of NASCAR’s Chase format years but seemed to handle this newest version well. Sailing all the way through round 3 when teammates Johnson, Kasey Kahne, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell back he was one tussle with Brad Keselowski away from making it to the Homestead Final Four. Gordon appeared to have the fastest car in that season finale, pouring salt in the wound of what could have been a record-tying seventh championship without NASCAR implementing a playoff system. Still, spirited words toward Keselowski a few weeks earlier showed Gordon still had the passion to compete; his team was competing on a level on par or better with his longtime friend/nemesis Johnson. The stage appeared set for a few more title shots for as long as Gordon still wanted to drive.
Or so we thought. Gordon, whose career put him in position to call the shots knew the final whistle was closer than it appeared. This season, although he’s been bogged down by bad luck struggles from his later years (restarts, keeping up with needed adjustments) have come back to bite him. Three top-five finishes to date leaves him on pace for the lowest total of his Cup career; the projected laps led totals would be his worst since 2000. Sitting winless and 13th in the standings, he’ll almost certainly make the Chase but do so because of the expanded field (16 cars now, up from 10 in 2004) along with a general mediocrity of competitors around him. Less than a year after being the class of the field Gordon is simply struggling to remain relevant within the sport’s top tier.
Some might say he should stick it out, riding the wave and waiting for Hendrick Motorsports’ inevitable rise back to the top. But history, for those who review it can teach us a lesson in present reality. Gordon saw his rival Dale Earnhardt win his last Cup title at age 43. Stewart, also age 44 looks like a bit of an also-ran right now. Waltrip won his last race at 45, former teammate and two-time Cup champ Terry Labonte won just once after age 43… the data on this one is fairly conclusive. Yes, there have been exceptions to the rule, like Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett and Harry Gant. But all of them made it to Cup later in life, leaving them with a little extra energy down the stretch. Gordon, who suffers from a bad back was the Kobe Bryant of his generation, sparking the long line of “young gun” drivers who went straight from their teenage years to taking their turn behind the wheel in NASCAR’s top divisions. It’s been 22 years of sponsor commitments, nearly 800 Cup starts and a plethora of physical and mental challenges. That takes its toll on anyone, in particular a married father of two whose priorities have rightly shifted to family and friends.
Longtime fans of the sport still hope for one last dose of magic from Gordon. Bristol has been one of his best tracks; it’s a place where the No. 24 team was strong this spring. It would be a shame for a driver of Gordon’s caliber to end his career without a victory even though the man himself isn’t concerned. After all, a jump to the FOX booth as a NASCAR analyst is in store for 2016, bringing him to the next chapter in front of a welcoming audience of millions.
Clearly, Gordon has plenty to look forward to. He also will leave with no regrets or worries over anything he left behind. It’s a lesson other athletes can learn from as the sport’s “Wonder Boy” leaves as a teacher of how to work through your career from beginning to end.