On Thursday morning (Jan. 22, 2015), Jeff Gordon announced that the 2015 race season would be his final season of full-time NASCAR Sprinnt Cup Series competition. In his announcement, Gordon made a point of not calling it retirement, saying he plans to keep busy and remain in the sport in some capacity. He even hinted at a possibility of maybe running a race or two here or there.
When you really get down to it, Gordon’s announcement shouldn’t have really been a shock. He uttered the word “retirement” prior to the start of the 2014 season, even if it was in jest, saying that he may just retire if he won a fifth championship that season.
Then, consider his back issues that plagued him during 2014, at least enough to keep him out of the seat of his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for a practice session.
Still, judging from posts on social media and comments made by callers on the various shows on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio throughout the day on Thursday, Gordon’s announcement hit many throughout the NASCAR world in much the same way a shocking announcement would.
I know it’s kind of hit me that way. I had recently started my junior year of high school when Gordon made his first Winston (now-Sprint) Cup Series start at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Nov. 1992. I didn’t follow the sport then, as I jumped on board a few years later while attending college. My attraction to NASCAR, followed by other forms of motorsports, resulted from something that seems rather silly now that I won’t get into here.
Anyway, I guess it could be said I jumped on the NASCAR bandwagon during the Gordon era. It was an era that began as another era ended. Gordon’s first race was seven-time champion and future NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty’s last.
Although I came on board during what, I guess, was the Gordon era, I wasn’t a Gordon fan, per se. No, I was a Dale Earnhardt fan, then a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. And as we hit the 2000s, I tried to move away from having a favorite driver as I began pursing a career as a NASCAR writer and, therefore, tried to keep myself as unbiased as possible.
That being said, I do recognize all the contributions Gordon has made to NASCAR. He’s one of the greatest of all time, and his contributions to the sport are huge and came on the track and off. I don’t think any level-headed person could deny that. I wholeheartedly agree with the many sentiments I’ve heard today that Gordon will be, without a doubt, a first ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer. With NASCAR’s stipulation that a driver must be 55 or older or be retired from driving for at least three years, Gordon will be eligible for nomination in 2019 for possible induction in 2020. Since the first induction class, I’ve had a hard time predicting the five inductees each year. But I’m pretty sure that we’ll see Gordon as part of the class of 2020. I may not be able to predict inductees for 2016, ’17, ’18 or ’19 or the other four inductees for 2020, but I’ll go ahead and make the prediction that Gordon will be one of the five in 2020.
Maybe the tinge of surprise comes as a result of Gordon’s recent on-track performance. The guy made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2014 and was a title contender until the checkered flag at Phoenix Internaitonal Raceway, the ninth race in the 10-race Chase. He also visited victory lane three times last year.
I think Gordon should be applauded for decided to go out while still being a factor — heck, a championship factor. More often than not, drivers and athletes in other sports stick around well past their prime, sometimes so long that their glory days are almost forgotten and seem oh-so-long-ago. Not Gordon. Gordon has a legitimate shot of going out on top.
There’s a selfish part of me that wants to say, “Thanks, Jeff Gordon, for making me feel old.” Of course, I say that jokingly. Seriously, though, I think Gordon’s departure leaves us with Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick as the elder statesmen of the sport. Granted, they’re all older than me, not by much, but they are all older. Okay, Harvick is something like two days older than me, but that does qualify as older. I was already following NASCAR, as an adult, when all these guys came along as Cup rookies. I was even already out of college by Stewart’s rookie season, and if I’m not mistaken, he’ll be the longest-tenured still-regularly-notable driver in Sprint Cup competition once Gordon steps away.
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Before you go, here’s a gallery of images featuring milestone moments throughout Gordon’s NASCAR Sprint Cup career (photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR):