Monday, October 27, 2008

Are we now in the Post Gordon Era in NASCAR?

Statistically, he's the greatest active driver in NASCAR. He's won 81 races and 4 championships. In his 17 years in the sport, he has 245 top 5's and 334 top 10's. He's won 66 poles in his career. He has almost 100 million dollars in winnings. But he's not won a race in 2008, and hasn't won a championship since 2001. He's Jeff Gordon, and even after all he's won, he's still hungry for more.

When interviewed yesterday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jeff said that he's happy with how his 24 Chevrolet team has been progressing this year. He said they need to get better, but he's not unhappy with his team. He has hinted in past weeks that they may need to tweak certain things, such as personnel. Many of Gordon's fans have been putting a lot of blame on his crew chief, Steve Letarte. Jeff has done nothing but praise Letarte, but that's what drivers do. Placing blame on the crew chief is common in this sport. As an Earnhardt fan, believe me, I know the feeling.

Jeff Gordon's personal life has changed greatly over the last few years. He's remarried and now has a daughter. Jeff appears to be a very happy family man now. Has that made a difference in his driving performance? Some think it's a possibility, but I don't. On race day, I see the same guy with the same game face on that I watched 10 years ago. His focus does not appear to have changed. What's going on in his mind, nobody can know but Jeff though. Does having a family change what a driver is willing to do? In some cases, I'm sure it does. Jeff Gordon, being the professional that he's always been appears to be able to compartmentalize his life and his various roles in it.

At the age of 37, it's doubtful that Jeff is past his prime as a race driver. His reflexes may be slower than they were 10 years ago, but he's still consistently one of the best drivers on the track race in and race out. Other drivers have won races when they were 10 years older than Jeff, though not lately. Certainly the competition is tougher than it ever has been, but Jeff has always found ways to win against the odds.

Gordon can chalk up some of his problems in 2008 to just plain bad luck. He's been involved in several crashes this year, mostly as an innocent victim. The 24 team seems to be missing the setups on the new car, a problem common among almost all drivers in the sport this year. Though Jeff is currently 6th in points with 3 races to go, he will not win his 5th championship this year. With 3 races to go, he could, of course, break his winless streak, and undoubtedly that is his primary goal right now.

Gordon's primary sponsor, Dupont, is supposedly signed with the 24 team through 2010. Jeff can supposedly drive for Hendrick Motorsports as long as he desires. It has been speculated that Jeff might retire if Dupont leaves. I suppose it's not unreasonable to suppose such a thing. Jeff has already won pretty much everything there is to win, has more money than he can spend in 10 lifetimes, has a lovely wife and daughter, and except to race for his personal satisfaction, he really doesn't need to. I don't see it happening though. Jeff will certainly retire one day, but I feel like he will keep trying for at least one more championship. I imagine somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows that with just a few more wins, he can top legendary drivers such at Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough in all time wins. Other than Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, Jeff has already won more championships than any other driver. Surpassing Earnhardt and Petty's record of 7 championships each would appear to be a fading dream though.

I doubt that we will ever see Jeff Gordon running partial schedules much in his later years. Jeff does not appear to be the type of driver who even wants to be on the track unless he thinks he can win, and win it all. Every single season he's driven has been a championship run, at least in his mind. Missing the Chase for the Cup in 2005 must have been a devastating development for him. Every driver wants to win, but a lot of them know that realistically, in the Cup series, if they finish in the top 15, they've had a very good day. 15th for Jeff Gordon must feel like 43rd to him.

Whatever the future holds for Jeff Gordon, you can never, ever count him out. Not yet.

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