Four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon made a statement early this year that if he won a fifth title this year, he may just retire, as his career would be complete. Gordon, though, wasn’t exactly being matter-of-fact about the possibility of a retirement come 2014 season’s end. He later said that he was taken too seriously and that he wasn’t seriously considering retiring at the end of the year, championshipship or not.
There is something that may be forcing the four-time champ’s hand though — his back. Since shrugging off the retirement talk of early season, Gordon has suffered back issues, especially since May. Gordon took a hard hit in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and wound up sitting out a practice the following Coca-Cola 600 race weekend, also at Charlotte. It was so bad, there was a back-up driver on hand in case Gordon was unable to run the entire race. Gordon was able to complete the race, but his has since commented that he doesn’t think his back will ever be the same again.
“I don’t know what exactly transpired there, but it’s not the same,” Gordon said recently. “And I have to be much more careful. I’m just having to treat it more with ice and stem and be more careful and do more stretching. Is it going to flare up again? It could. But I’m just trying to be more cautious with the things that I do that I feel like contribute to that. But, yeah, it’s not great, that’s for sure.”
To fans who have been around awhile, it may seem like it wasn’t that long ago that Gordon was known as “Wonder Boy,” the young kid on the scene. But that was more than 20 years ago. The guy’s no spring chicken anymore.
Hendrick Motorsports does already have a driver in the wings that could, possibly, fill Gordon’s shoes — Chase Elliott. Elliott’s a rookie in the Nationwide Series this year, driving for Hendrick Sprint Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide team. His rookie status hasn’t slowed him down, though. Elliott is leading Nationwide Series regulars in wins with three trips to victory lane, and there’s still quite a bit of the season left to go. Oh, and by the way, he’s the championship points leader.
Earnhardt and Elliott’s dad, soon-to-be NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, have insisted that the younger Elliott’s decided-on road to Sprint Cup includes two years of Natonwide Series competition. And during that second Nationwide season, he’s expected to run a handful of Cup races in anticipation of full-time Sprint Cup competition the following year. Could Gordon have just one more good year left in him and his worse for wear back before Elliott moves up to Cup to take over the No. 24 seat? That’s a possibility.
The good news is that Gordon, bad back and all, is running like a championship contender. Even if he is forced out by his bad back, he could still go out on top, and isn’t that a lot better than running non-competitively for years before finally givng up and throwing in the towel like some other former NASCAR stars I’ll refrain from mentioning here?
Not so long ago, talk around Elliott and Sprint Cup had the young driver possibly taking over the No. 5 ride currently occupied by Kasey Kahne. Word had it that, given not so great performances as of late, Kahne could be on his way out at HMS if things didn’t improve, and Elliott would be there to fill the vacancy.
There may be question marks floating over Kahne’s future at Hendrick Motorsports. I don’t know. If Elliott moves up to Sprint Cup in the near future, somebody has to be out at the top level. Organizations are only allowed four teams, so car owner Rick Hendrick is at his limit, as they run now. Of course a deal could be struck with a corporate partner, like Stewart-Haas Racing. But, right now, that team’s also at its four-car limit.
I’m guessing Hendrick will want to keep Elliott for himself, so I see a move to a Hendrick Motorsports ride at the Sprint Cup level in Elliott’s future. But he may not wind up as Kahne’s replacement as recently speculated. Gordon’s back may have something to say about that. That back issue may make the decision for Hendrick, Gordon and Elliott. The prodigy may become the heir apparent to the No. 24 empire. It could happen.
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