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Jeff Gordon trying to prove his time has not passed
by Tom Bowles
If fans are fascinated with an athlete’s rise to greatness, they’re guilty of being further fixated on the fall. It’s the strange way dynasties work in competitive sports — people cheer them until too much success turns excitement into indifference at best, boos at worst, except for the hardest of hardcore supporters. Legends turn a certain age, and they’re a ticking time bomb. Every missed opportunity and uncharacteristic failure becomes the basis for fans to slide him or her straight from royalty into retirement.
But in most cases, the regression of an athlete’s career is far more complex, packaged without that type of “made-for-TV” moment historians crave. Perfect example: Jeff Gordon, NASCAR’s former “Wonderboy” who turns 40 this summer, and is in the midst of one of the worst starts to his great career. Attached forever to the sport’s record growth, Gordon’s — and NASCAR’s — futures were once thought to be bright for decades, but are now increasingly unclear.
As the circuit heads to Charlotte for the All-Star Race, it’s the perfect time to sit down and take stock of it all. For a time, this race was the crown jewel in Gordon’s NASCAR empire. Who could forget 1995, that “changing of the guard” moment where Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip wrecked while battling for the lead, sparks flying while a certain No. 24 dove underneath to dodge the melee. That was Gordon who scooted by, winning the race en route to his first Cup Series championship and a rarely seen six-year reign atop stock car racing — with four championships, a Daytona 500 victory and the Winston Million, among other accomplishments. All-Star victories were added in 1997 and 2001, tying him with Earnhardt for most all-time, and if it wasn’t for running out of fuel in ’98, the T-Rex car would have been the dinosaur that chomped up the field and spit it out while leaving the record squarely in Gordon’s camp.
But now, as we head to the sport’s 2011 exhibition event, Gordon’s bid for a fourth All-Star win is overshadowed, as he ranks fourth on his own team. The house this Rainbow Warrior built at Hendrick has picked up and left without him this season. At 14th in points, he sits lower than Jimmie Johnson (second), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (fourth) and even 52-year-old Mark Martin (11th). With just three top-10 finishes through 11 races, a pace like that projects Gordon with 10 top 10s at the end of the year – easily the worst total of a full-time career that’s into its 19th season.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Gordon, supposedly rejuvenated in the offseason with a new shop, away from former-protégé-turned-professor Johnson and a new crew chief (Alan Gustafson) armed with the engineering knowledge to match the original Four-Time’s old-school skill set. That pairing sprinted off the starting line, qualifying on the Daytona 500 front row before dominating Phoenix the following week. With 138 laps led and most of his competition demolished in an early, savage wreck, the No. 24 found itself waltzing to Victory Lane. It was career win No. 83, leaving him tied for fifth all-time and left “championship contender” rolling off the tip of the tongue.
But that’s where the good vibes stopped. A wreck at Las Vegas sapped momentum that hasn’t been easily recovered, with just two top-5 finishes offset by two ugly, crash-induced DNFs that included one of the hardest hits Gordon has ever taken at Richmond. While remaining in contention for a “wild card” Chase spot, playoff bids are window dressing if you can’t kill them with consistency, and Gordon hasn’t put back-to-back top-10 finishes together since October 2010.
It’s a slump, for sure, but a look at the numbers over the last four years begs a bigger question: Will Gordon ever grab that fifth title he so craves? Since Johnson beat him down in ’07, tipping the Chase format his way despite Gordon’s record 30 top-10 finishes, the elder statesman has entered that state of “gradual decline” that eventually comes for everyone. He has two wins now since February 2008, one less than Earnhardt in that time frame and 19 behind the pace of Johnson. Hendrick dominance led to third-place finish in the ’09 title Chase, but it’s his only top-5 points finish the last three years.
And while the No. 48 continues to run circles around him, it’s the success of the No. 88 team that is raising eyebrows. There on Earnhardt’s pit box sits Steve Letarte, chastised by Gordon fans throughout a five-year tenure of making the wrong decisions at the wrong times while manning the 24 team’s box. Criticism intensified during a “poor pit strategy” campaign of 2010, where seemingly every call made during a late caution flag went against them. Yet, here we are, six months after a Gordon-Letarte divorce and it’s the head wrench earning high acclaim, on the verge of leading Earnhardt back to Victory Lane while – gasp! – the much-maligned fan favorite is even considered a longshot title contender by some.
That title talk has long faded for Gordon, as he simply fights for relevance with an increasingly crowded field at the top. Some have said the new car’s to blame, but it’s hard to believe that theory – Gordon’s record-setting year of 2007 came during its introduction. Perhaps the biggest change during this stretch is a transition to family life; a wife and two kids he loves dearly may or may not have affected that inner desire to be the best at all costs. More realistic is the shop Gordon’s walked into, a second-tier Hendrick warehouse (despite claims to the contrary) that only once last decade produced a title contender (Mark Martin, 2009).
Along the same lines — and in a cruel touch of irony — NASCAR’s early popularity boost this season has faded, too, and the stories of Gordon and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne (illness) have been pushed back by the success of others who also happen to be the “same old, same old” at the top of the point standings. Yes, turns out there was a changing of the guard several years ago, as Johnson was joined by Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as perpetual title contenders. All, with the exception of Busch, have a better finish in the championship race the last four years.
Can Gordon make it back on that list? He’s got three, maybe four years left in him as long as that fickle back doesn’t fire up in pain again. You never quite know when legends can find a way to use up what’s left in the tank. But if he doesn’t, if five years from now he’s sitting comfortably with Ingrid and the kids in a New York apartment, you can look back to this stretch and say that’s when it all started to slip away.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles