Would title No. 5 send Gordon into sunset?
February 11, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Jeff Gordon has more wins than any active driver in NASCAR's premier division. But it's the quest for a fifth championship, which would be his first under the Sprint Cup name and the 10-race Chase format, that keeps him motivated.
Thus, it was startling to hear Gordon say with some mock seriousness during the Sprint Media Tour last month that he would retire "on the spot" if he were to clinch title No. 5 this November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Pressed to explain himself, the 42-year-old driver elaborated but with plenty of smiles and tongue-in-cheek laughter.
"I think that would be a great way to go out. So I think, 'what's another few years?' " Gordon chuckled. "But I know that if we did that, I'd be thinking maybe we could do it again next year. So don't hold me to that. I'm jokingly serious."
Or seriously joking. Gordon will embark on his 22nd year of big-league stock-car racing when Speedweeks begin this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. He'll be bidding for his fourth Daytona 500 crown on Feb. 23, a chance to build on his career win total of 88, and a shot at another championship under a new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup elimination-style playoff format.
Though Gordon certainly has fewer seasons ahead of him than behind him in his already celebrated driving career, the people who represent the closest support system for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team say his dedication for reporting to work has never been stronger.
"He's a true competitor. Competing is ingrained in his DNA," said Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief. "That's what he does, and he wants to be the best, no matter what situation he's in. That shows through always, regardless of what he's doing. I've never seen him not motivated, not competing very hard. … Jeff's got the ability; we all know that. He's got the commitment to do it."
Echoed team owner Rick Hendrick: "When he tells me that he doesn't think he wants to do it any more ... I hope it's nowhere near the end of his future. He's so good. We've seen it this year. We've had some terrible luck and our goal -- we've talked to Alan -- is to make that team stronger this year. Jeff Gordon has got a lot of years left."
Gordon has flirted with the notion of curtailing his career before, most notably when back pain left him gritting it out during the 2009 season. To hear Gordon tell it, the aches made it much easier for him to be contemplative about his career path.
"You have a bad year, too, then you sit there and say, 'You know, I've done everything that I ever wanted to do in this sport.' " Gordon said. "I want to go out feeling good about who I am and what I'm doing and feeling competitive, and so you have a bad year, your back's hurting, you say things like that. Luckily we've been able to rebound and have some more competitive seasons as well."
Even as he reached his 40s, Gordon has had little drop-off, winning at least one race in each of the last three seasons. He still has clear goals on his career bucket list, including a victory at Kentucky Speedway -- the only current track on the Sprint Cup tour where he hasn't won.
Claiming a championship under the Chase format still looms large for Gordon, who will try to check that box under a new postseason system that guarantees a four-driver free-for-all at Homestead. If Gordon can make it past the three rounds of eliminations into the championship finale, Hendrick likes his chances.
"I think this type of format will play into Jeff's hands," Hendrick said. "He's kind of one of those guys, if you get him in sight of the checkered flag, he doesn't need any motivation. I think if you get him into that top four, he'll be a handful at Homestead."
For Gordon, the checkered flag is still what drives him to keep going, even after 725 starts over 22 years.
"Listen -- to me, I go out every weekend trying to win the race and that's on everybody's checklist," Gordon said. "To me, it's really just being in contention and going to Homestead with a shot at it. Whether it's the old format or the new format, I like being competitive. My checklist is whatever it takes to be competitive."