Doug Turnbull: Jeff Gordon is Going Out the Right Way
There is a popular cliché these days of someone "schooling the room" by making their shutdown statement and then "dropping the mic and walking away." Jeff Gordon is doing just that. "Wonder Boy" announced Thursday that 2015 will be his last full-time season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. There is your top NASCAR story of 2015. What more can be said about a four-time champion, 92-race winner (3rd all-time), and three-time Daytona 500 winner? Not much. Those are just a few of many stats that show Gordon is one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all-time. His clean image (most of the time), exuberant tone with fans (even the ones that boo him), and marketability speak just as much to his representation of the modern Modern Era of NASCAR. Another thing that Gordon also deserves praise for in his over 23 years in the Cup Series is that he is going out the right way.
Great drivers deserve to be remembered for being great, but many stay around too long. 2014 was arguably Gordon's most competitive in years. The 43-year-old notched four wins (his most since 2007) and came within one spot of qualifying for the final Chase race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But he didn't appear he would get the chance to leave the sport on top. In fact, if Gordon had made this decision five years ago, he would have been in the middle of a three-season stretch where he won only one race (he won one race in 2009 and none in 2008 or 2010). Questions about his driving future sprung up then, when stories about the health of his back became known and all this during his teammate Jimmie Johnson's five-year streak of Cup championships.
But Gordon finally found the spark these last few seasons and seemed dangerous as ever in '14. In his statements to the media Thursday, Gordon said that racing had gotten to the point in recent years of not being fun sometimes. But the success of last season has shaped his attitude and the No. 24 team has to be a favorite to be in the thick of the championship in Gordon's 2015 swan song.
Not often do sports stars get to leave at the top of their games. Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip stayed in NASCAR over a decade past their good years. David Pearson was never the same after him and the Wood Brothers' ugly divorce. Rusty Wallace was more competitive in his last two years of competition, but won only once in his last few seasons. Mark Martin had only one good season in his last years and his final two part-time seasons at Michael Waltrip Racing proved his time had long passed. Bill Elliott went through a 1990s drought, only to start winning again in the early 2000s. Then he semi-retired and was mostly a non-factor in his races between 2004 and 2012. Elliott's story also holds true for Bobby and Terry Labonte. Sterling Marlin was never the same after a neck injury from a racing crash in 2002.
The majority of drivers that did leave NASCAR while still competitive did so tragically. Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki each died at the height of their careers in 1993. Tim Richmond passed away much too early. Bobby Allison's career ended after a near-fatal crash in 1988. Dale Earnhardt had a Gordon-like resurgence in 2000, only to lose his life in the 2001 Daytona 500. Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly each died in racing crashes at the heights of their superstardom. And some racing greats just simply do not get to leave on their own terms, such as soon-to-be NASCAR Hall of Famer Rex White, whose career ended when factory support of his team went away.
Gordon's NASCAR exit is similar to another NASCAR great - Cale Yarborough. Yarborough won three-straight championships from 1976-1978, but left his full-time driver's role after the 1980 season. He went on to continue winning races each year on a part-time schedule through the mid-'80s, before going winless from '86-'88. But the 83-race winner stayed competitive and relevant and didn't get chewed up by the demands of a full-time schedule. He got to have fun.
That's just what Gordon wants to do in his final year as a Sprint Cup driver. He says he wants to enjoy his successes more than just analyzing them like he has done in the past. With his family by his side and the light at the end of the tunnel, Jeff Gordon enters 2015 focused, but without a weight on his shoulders. That just may make this "old guy" more dangerous than ever.
Gordon is not using the "r-word" - he says he still may want to drive in the Xfinity Series or Camping World Truck Series or even in sports cars. He says he will be at the track in 2016 in some way. And his decision, which he says he made in middle of last year, seems to pave the way for prodigy and 2014 Xfinity Series champ Chase Elliott to take over. That announcement of a successor comes later. For now, Gordon's sunset gets the limelight. Cheers to Jeff Gordon for the bar he has set for the NASCAR stars of today and tomorrow and for all he has done to leverage his fame for good both on and off the track.
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