Jeff Gordon has almost finished the lengthy process of building the North Carolina home where he plans to raise his children.
That, team owner Rick Hendrick said, was all the insurance he needs to keep the four-time NASCAR champion behind the wheel of a stock car for a very long time.
“Have you seen that house he’s building? He’s going to be driving at least 10 more years,” Hendrick said this week.
With a new three-year sponsorship announced on Wednesday, Gordon was sure to be driving into at least 2013 to fulfill his new obligation to the AARP Foundation’s “Drive to End Hunger” campaign. Beyond that is anyone’s guess, including Gordon’s.
“There really is no set plan,” he said after his announcement. “Five years ago, I thought 2010 might be my last year. I was having some issues with my back and I just thought maybe I would be ready to step away. But I’m not. I am so passionate about it. I am still competitive and my health, from my back standpoint, has gotten better and that’s giving me years to be behind the wheel.”
But the numbers don’t lie.
He’s in his 18th full season, is 38 years old, has just one win over the last three seasons and is mired in a career worst 61-race drought. And, after starting the year strong and establishing himself as a title contender, he’s fizzled in the Chase for the championship.
With just four races remaining, Gordon is fifth in the standings and declared his championship chances over even before his round of bumper-cars with Kurt Busch last weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
A season that had so much promise early in the year—Gordon was ranked second in the standings for most of the “regular season”—has petered out and nobody knows why.
“I wish I could answer that,” Hendrick said. “He ran so good, and all of the good luck we’ve had over the years, for him to be so snakebit. Speeding on pit road, that’s just not Jeff Gordon, two of those (penalties). And then just the deal with Busch. It’s been uncharacteristic of that team and again, the way we started, so strong, and the cars have been running good.
“It’s not from lack of being competitive. We’ve led a lot of races, we’ve been up front, just for whatever reason, we’ve been a little snakebit.”
But Gordon is realistic.
He’s accepted all year that his No. 24 team wasn’t running at the same level as teammate Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who rank first through third in the standings. His only shot, he thought, was to be consistently good over the final 10 races.
But there was a faulty alternator at Charlotte that spoiled his pole-winning start, the wreck with Busch at Martinsville, and speeding penalties at California and Charlotte.
“We haven’t had some breaks go our way, as well as we need to get ourselves in a position to being more at the front and not make those big gutsy calls to win the race,” he said. “We need to be leading more laps, basically, because when we lead a lot of laps we finish well.”
So Gordon is already looking forward to next year, but hasn’t written off a strong finish to this season.
He knows Talladega is up for grabs, and he could get his seventh career win there this Sunday. Then comes Texas, where he’s been strong since grabbing his first career victory there last year. He was in contention for the victory at Phoenix this spring, and he’s not terrible at Homestead.
“I am looking forward to ending out the season and hopefully we can do it on a positive note,” Gordon said. “But what I am really focused on is, what do we got to do to be better next year? That’s the nice thing being in the position in points we are right now.”