NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR Retirement – Planning It Right

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.

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kb

Yeah, that pesky “Playoff” system….DOES NOT REWARD, now does it?????????????????????????????????????????? I wasn’t excited last year, and I am very underwhelmed and indifferent this year. Wins, most points etc. mean squat. Ryan Newman lead a whole 5 laps all year with ZERO wins could have been “The Champ” SARCASM!!! That is a definition of a “Champ”, when others had better stats all around? Why is this folly so hard for Castle Daytona to wrap their pea brains around??????????

janice

just wait til kyle wins the championship. i have a feeling that is how it will all shake down come homestead.

Ken

Janice, if that does indeed happen, there will be a massive shake down alright. And while the sheep media will be heaping praise on a driver overcoming adversity (due primarily to his oversized ego, and his own stupidity), the backlash against NASCAR by fans will be substantial. Too bad Brian is too stupid to realize the damage he’ll be doing.

GinaV24

I think it will be interesting to watch how the retirement of these very popular drivers (albeit not everyone is a fan of the same drivers) affects NASCAR overall.

I know people say well, it happened with Petty, DW and others but the sport is in a harder place than it once was with not that many new fans coming into the sport. I’m not sure that NASCAR can make up the shortfall in fans. Heck, just on this site – Bill B and myself have already stated that we won’t pick another driver to support.

I enjoyed racing and NASCAR BEFORE I was a Gordon fan. Now, I’m a Gordon fan who no longer enjoys NASCAR.

Bill B

I think Jeff has made the right decision. As a long time fan, I am glad he’s retiring before he ends up like those other drivers you mentioned. I would like to see him win one more race before the end but I’m not counting on it. Every dog has their day and too many times athletes can not accept that their day has passed.

I am also glad he’s retiring so I can stop giving a crap what Brian does to the sport. I won’t have a dog in the fight anymore and therefore I won’t be as vested in NASCAR. Hey Brian, maybe you should expand the chase field to 20 and eliminate 5 drivers in each round. Oh yeah, and have a competition caution every 30 laps to bunch them up.

janice

i just remember what a farce dw’s end of his career was. it was pitiful watching him use the past champions provisional (dw provisional during most of one season) to make the field and then be a back burner all race long.

GinaV24

Yes, it was sad with DW and I’m not enjoying the way Gordon’s racing for his last season either. It is a very frustrating to watch.

DoninAjax

He should have driven for Ford. Hendrick’s been stealing things for a long time.

Don

NASCAR is only a shell of what it was once and for that matter could be.

Steve Cosentino

When he stormed on the scene it was love him or hate him. The 24’s battles with the 3 were legendary and that is what built up this sport so much. This “kid” winning races and not being intimidated by the black 3. Great finishes (that were not altered by NASCAR). I would bet you won’t find one fan who says today’s racing is better than it was in 1995. Because it wasn’t.

Jeff Gordon….I tip my hat to you. I was not a big fan of yours in the beginning but your top shelf.

Upstate24fan

I agree with the article. He is picking the right time to step aside. 22 years of the Cup schedule grind have taken their toll. Kenseth and Tony are of comparable age, but they came into the series in 1999 and 2000. This season has been brutal as a 24 fan. I guess it could be worse (e.g. Tony). Maybe in the future drivers should announce these things near the end of season. These farewell tours don’t seem to go to well. I’m hoping Chase will find success next year in the 24. I want to stick with the team, but I feel won’t watch races with same focus on one car. Now if Jeff falls out of a race, especially if in attendance it’s a punch in the gut. I figure it will be more like watching Xfinity and Trucks. If my guy falls out, I’ll be disappointed but I won’t want to say screw it and change the channel.

I hope the “Rainbow Warriors” will get it done one more time on Saturday, maybe he can knock the 2 out of the way again for a Bristol win.

Bill B

Do you really think they could have kept his retirement a secret until the end of the season, or even late in the season? There are too many people inside HMS and outside HMS that need to be involved in getting things ready for Elliot to take over next year. It would have been a bigger distraction if the news broke now then before the season started,

GinaV24

With all the logistics, it would have been tough to just announce it and step away although I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Gordon considered it – he had a great 2014 season and if NASCAR hadn’t changed the car and put another “package” together that IMO benefits those drivers who run the Xfinity series the most, I would bet Gordon would be having a better season this year. Also there is a part of me that thinks that Gustafson & the team are just marking time until Chase Elliott starts as their driver next year.

Upstatefan, I would enjoy seeing the 2 car knocked out of the way for a win — Rusty Wallace has never forgiven Jeff for that. LOL

GinaV24

Nice article, Tom. As a long time Gordon fan, I am glad that he made the decision to retire on his own terms. Do I wish that this season were going better? Absolutely. I would like to see him enjoying this last season of racing and doing as well as he did last year, but apparently that is not to be. I’m doing my best to simply enjoy seeing Gordon on the track.

Also, like BillB, Gordon’s retirement means that I, too, can “retire” from NASCAR and not care what inane things Brainless comes up with each year or how much spin the PR/media puts on how “great” all of this is. I can watch if I choose and laugh at it instead of wondering what the heck they are doing now. It will be a big “who cares?” attitude for 2016 and beyond for me.

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