In racing as in life, seasons mark the passage of time. A racing career blossoms in the spring, reaches its zenith in summer, and then begins its inevitable decline into fall and winter. After capturing four Cup championships in the span of seven years, Jeff Gordon has gone seven years without a title. He's talked openly about the desire to step back from a full-time schedule on the NASCAR circuit. So the question must be asked: Where is Jeff Gordon in the seasonal circle game?
Gordon's rapid ascension through the ranks of motorsports began in a quartermidget car when he was 5 years old. With relatively few interruptions, Gordon's life has revolved around racing for nearly 35 years. As a teenager he won the Silver Crown championship in sprint cars. He then moved south and took the NASCAR world by storm. As spring turned to summer on his career arc, he teamed with Ray Evernham at Hendrick Motorsports. The duo's chemistry was unrivalred in the garage. Evernham -- a master of the torque wrench -- guided Gordon to the rookie of the year award in 1993, before scoring a breakthrough victory in the first stock car race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994.
The summer season of Gordon's career brought an upset victory over Dale Earnhardt in 1995. Earnhardt, who had won the previous two championships in a row, was denied in his attempt for a three-peat and an eighth title. A 10-win season in 1996 was followed by another 10-win season in 1997 and a second championship. The warn summer sun enveloped Gordon throughout the 1998 season. Gordon and Evernham teamed up for mastery in the summer of 1998 as they captured four straight victories-- a feat that would not be duplicated for nearly 10 years. Gordon's 13-win season in 1998 remains the winningest season in NASCAR's modern era.
Evernham departed in 1999 and Gordon struggled to find chemistry with new team members. Gordon went through a rebuilding season in 2000 before striking back to win the 2001 championship with crew chief Robbie Loomis. His personal life went through an upheaval during 2002 as a financial settlement was ironed out during divorce proceedings with his wife Brooke.
Gordon rebounded with a solid season in 2004 and came within 16 points of the series championship. Another crew chief change in 2005 halted whatever forward progress was made during 2004. Nevertheless, he rebounded with a solid 2006 season and a near-miss for the championship in 2007. Gordon scored 30 top-10 finishes in 36 races in 2007-- along with six victories. However, a winless season in 2008 brought questions about whether his best days were in the rear view mirror.
Was 2007 the "Indian Summer" of Gordon's career? Has autumn already given way to an early winter? Or can Gordon rebound in 2009 for one more season in the sun? It's the question that any veteran athlete asks themselves as they acknowledge that retirement looms on the horizon. NFL quarterback Brett Favre, 39, announced his retirement in the spring of 2008. But he decided to come back for another season in the sun, fully believing he could continue to play at a high level. And he has succeeded.
There are more questions than answers regarding Gordon's career arc at this point in the game. He's heard the criticism and whispers in the media. Some claim his fire no longer burns as strong. Some claim the birth of his daughter, Ella, in 2007 effectively changed him and made him more passive on the track. Of course, that logic discounts his victories and successes in 2007 after she was born. Some claim that Steve Letarte doesn't belong as Gordon's crew crief. After all, 2008 was a winless season. If an NFL coach had a winless season, he'd be canned long before the season even concluded. Some claim that Letarte's personality and work ethic is too relaxed for the high stakes world of Cup racing when compared to a crew chief such as Chad Knaus. They claim that Gordon needs a more intense crew chief, yet will not hire one since he "gets along" with Letarte. Make no mistake about it-- Jeff Gordon still wants to win races. And he believes that Steve Letarte gives him the best chance to do so.
Some claim that Rick Hendrick simply isn't giving the #24 team the equipment to contend on a weekly basis. "The best equipment goes to Jimmie!" is a common refrain from far too many Gordon fans. Those fans fail to grasp the work flow at Hendrick Motorsports. The #24 and #48 cars are prepared in the same shop. The workers who build the cars are rarely aware of which car they're working on. It is one raceshop operating as two race teams on the track-- but one team operating as a single unit at the shop.
Some claim that Gordon's focus has shifted away from driving. He has a wine label, an active social life in New York City, and interests far beyond the corners of a racetrack. The critics will look at Gordon's career arc and claim that winter has arrived. It's a common story in NASCAR racing. A veteran who has experienced a great deal of success inevitably slows down as time marches on. Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty were both winless in the last eight years of their racing careers. Rusty Wallace's victory total slowed to a trickle in his final few seasons. Bill Elliott hasn't been a weekly contender in more than 15 years. Has Gordon simply reached winter at an earlier age? Or are there a few more Indian Summers on the horizon? That's a question that can't be answered by the driver's words, or the crew chief's words, or even his competitor's words. It can only be answered by performance.
Gordon is no longer the "man at the top" in the NASCAR world. Jimmie Johnson's three championships and 40 victories in the last seven seasons rank with some of the greatest runs in the sport's history. Are Gordon's best days behind him? Without a doubt. He's not going to win 13 races in a season again. It's extremely remote he'll win 10 races in a season again. But -- rest assured -- he can still win races and championships.
Gordon's paint scheme was changed for the 2009 season. A new day awaits as the Firestorm scheme will debut during Daytona Speedweeks. Gordon does not need to answer the questions from the critics -- 81 careeer wins and 4 championships provide more than enough insulation against those questions. Yes, Johnson's record is impressive and his chemistry with crew chief Chad Knaus makes him formidable. Rising stars Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch will only continue to improve in the years ahead. And there's a new crop of rookies just looking to challenge for supremecy.
The questions from the critics seemed to follow Gordon every week in 2008 during his weekend press conferences. A zero in the win column brings questions about self-doubt, distraction, and declining ability. Johnson's dominance has laid down a challenging gauntlet. Can Gordon still compete with Johnson each week? Again, it's a question that Gordon does not need to answer. The only question Gordon needs to answer does not come from anyone in the racing media. It doesn't come from his crew chief or his car owner or his public relations advisor. It doesn't even come from his wife. Rather, the ultimate question comes from Jeff Gordon when he looks in the mirror: 'Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?' Don't break out the winter coats in the circle game just yet-- there still might be an Indian Summer on the horizon.
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