Jeff Gordon announced today that the 2015 season will be his last as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver.
The news was not entirely unexpected. At 43 years of age, Gordon admittedly had more good seasons behind him than ahead. A troublesome lower back has plagued him for a number of years now, raising valid questions about how long he might be able to soldier on. More recently, the addition of young phenom Chase Elliott to the Hendrick Motorsports stable added an additional dose of uncertainty to Gordon’s future. With Elliott poised to ascend to the Sprint Cup ranks in 2016, Kasey Kahne signed to a new multi-year contact and Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. going nowhere, it was only natural to wonder how long Gordon would choose to remain at the wheel.
Now we know, and the answer isn’t easy for many to accept.
For those of us of a certain age, it seems like only yesterday when Gordon burst onto the national scene. At age 20, he was extremely young for a Winston Cup competitor. In appearance, he was 20-going-on-14, despite nursing a caterpillar wisp on his upper lip that feebly attempted to pass itself off as a moustache.
At his introductory press conference, then-Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. “Humpy Wheeler” tabbed Gordon “the finest young racing talent in the world today.” Even Wheeler, a PT Barnum-esque master of hyperbole, could not have known just how right he would ultimately be.
Gordon’s transition to stock cars was not without its initial speed bumps. He wiped out a dozen or more of poor Bill Davis’s Busch Series Fords that first year, but won three times in his sophomore season, earning the notice of Rick Hendrick, who signed him to a now-legendary "lifetime contract" to drive the No. 24 Winston Cup Series Chevrolet. Gordon premiered in the final race of the 1992 campaign, largely unnoticed amid the hoorah of Richard Petty’s final NASCAR start.
In the 24 years that followed, however, the pride of Pittsboro, Indiana, accomplished everything there is to accomplish in the sport of stock car racing. Paired much of the way with legendary crew chief Ray Evernham, Gordon now ranks in the top five of virtually every NASCAR statistical category, despite having 700 fewer starts than many of the pioneers he followed.
His four Cup Series titles (1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001) trail only Hall Of Famers Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. He has won on every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series track but one, Kentucky Speedway, and he’ll have one final opportunity to cross the Bluegrass State oval off his To-Do List in July of this year.
Gordon has always been at his best in the biggest races. He is a three-time winner of the Daytona 500, a five-time Brickyard 400 champion, owns six Southern 500 trophies and three checkered flags in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. He has enough Martinsville Speedway grandfather clocks (eight) to drive Quasimodo mad.
His greatest trophy, however, is the esteem with which he is viewed by fans, officials, media and competitors alike. It’s difficult to find anyone with anything bad to say about Gordon. His professionalism, personality and appeal spurred NASCAR to new heights in the 1990s, and brought new fans into the fold. He was a regular guest on the morning and late-night TV talk shows and hosted episodes of Saturday Night Live, expanding NASCAR’s appeal into living rooms (and board rooms) that it had never reached before.
He remains fearless on the race track and combative when crossed, as Brad Keselowski can attest from as recently as last season. At the same time, however, he retains the analytical mind and easygoing personality that has made him a “go-to guy” among media members for nearly a quarter of a century.
For the first time since the George H.W. Bush administration, we now face the prospect of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race without Jeff Gordon in it. Fortunately, we have 10 months -- 36 races -- to get used to the idea of forging onward without a man who has literally changed the sport forever.
It will take at least that long to get used to the idea, and longer still to thank him.