A Tale of Two Champions

[cb_profit_poster sponsor1]Clinton, S.C., Saturday, August 24, 2013, 10:04 a.m.

Jeff Gordon (talking with Ford's Dan Zacharias) hasn't been able to recapture the old magic. (John Clark photo)

Jeff Gordon (talking with Ford’s Dan Zacharias) hasn’t been able to recapture the old magic. (John Clark photo)

In NASCAR, this is one weird year, the kind that comes along every so often when one era ends and another begins. Regardless of how solid Jimmie Johnson’s fleeting hold on the points lead seems – and uneasy lies any crown when the format is a Chase – I sense that the Sprint Cup Series is entering a period of interregnum, similar to when Richard Petty gradually yielded to Darrell Waltrip, who yielded to Dale Earnhardt, who yielded to Jeff Gordon, who yielded to Johnson.

When the season enters Final Jeopardy in a few weeks, the elite field of title contenders is going to have a few unfamiliar names, and a few familiar names are going to be missing, as in Tony Stewart’s case, and running around and around like chickens with their heads cut off, which is akin to racing every week outside the Chase. Denny Hamlin won’t be there. Jeff Gordon probably won’t be there. The doors of opportunity are starting to swing open. Johnson is in his prime, but his time there is limited. Gordon hasn’t won a championship in 12 years, and no one saw that coming in 2001.

Now here’s where I go out on a limb, or a couple of them, one of which is solid and the other shaky.

For most race drivers, determining the length of a career is easy. He competes as long as there is money to make it happen. Some only linger as long as they can continue to compete in first-class equipment. Others just linger as long as there are four wheels and a pit crew behind him (or, of course, in one current case, her).

I don’t think Gordon is one of those drivers.

Many years ago, the great open-wheel (as in, Sprints and Midgets) designer, builder and owner Bob East and I had a conversation about Stewart and Gordon, both of whom had competed in his cars on the way up through the ranks. East said Stewart just loved to race. He said Gordon had been interested in being the best. Stewart wanted to race because there was a track with its gates open. Gordon wanted to be on TV. Stewart wanted to be able to climb into anything with four wheels and win in it. Gordon wanted to be remembered as “the best.”

Fast-forward for more than a decade. Stewart won a championship in 2011 in one of those glorious, possibly last, hurrahs that come along once in a very great while. It may have been the greatest racing achievement I’ve ever witnessed. He won half the Chase and nothing else. He slipped in the back door with the help and took over the palace. I still look back on that year with wonder for Stewart and sympathy for Carl Edwards, who fell spectacularly short.

Gordon watched admiringly. If Stewart, just a few months different in age, could still do it, Gordon felt that maybe, just maybe, he could do the same thing, and he said as much, which was made more noteworthy by the fact that Gordon is an honest man. He said what most any driver would, but Gordon seldom says what he doesn’t mean. Sometimes he just doesn’t say anything, but he’s not a man prone to sweet nothings.

Here are my conclusions on two of the sport’s all-time greats, based on many years of watching them and nothing else.

Tony Stewart is laid up with a broken leg, but he led the parade as recently as two years ago.

Tony Stewart is laid up with a broken leg, but he led the parade as recently as two years ago.

Stewart, who broke his leg horribly in a sprint-car crash, will probably drive sprint cars again, if for no other reason because there are so many people out there demanding that he stop. I tend to think that, if Stewart did stop racing at obscure dirt tracks on Tuesday nights, it would hurt his performance in Sprint Cup, not because it would cost him skills but because it would cost him a portion of his soul. Stewart is Bo Jackson.

Gordon is Joe DiMaggio.

If Gordon gets it in his own mind that he isn’t going to win another championship, I don’t think he will linger. He won’t soldier on for eight winless seasons and have his reputation tarnished. He won’t be long content playing his cards right and slipping into the top 10 occasionally. Stewart won’t go away gently, and occasionally, he will pull off, oh, miracles. Stewart has more desire. Gordon has more sense.

I hasten to add that I once held the latter view of Muhammad Ali.

Thanks for your support, your loyalty, your comments and your patronage of my site. I’d appreciate if you’d look around, take a look at my novel, The Audacity of Dope, and blogs that are often, but not always, about NASCAR.

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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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7 Responses to A Tale of Two Champions

  1. Josie says:

    So…if I get where you’re going…Stewart = heart……Gordon = mind! I can accept that. No matter…they are two of the best ever…although my “heart” belongs only to Stewart…When I watched him in the 2011 Chase…I knew…it was racing history which will never be repeated….I don’t care if Johnson wins 15 Championships…2011 was “the benchmark”!

  2. J. Bosworth Carruthers, Esq. says:

    There are a lot of reasons drivers stay beyond their prime, and most always, it’s to their detriment:
    1. It’s all they know how to do. Hard to give up a good paycheck, particularly if you’re not as glib as a Darrell Waltrip or as business-savvy as his brother.
    2. They think they still have a good one left in them, whether it’s a championship season, or even a race win.
    3. Let’s face it: They love the limelight. As much as they piss and moan about it, and blow off reporters and stiff autograph seekers, the one thing that hurts them most is to be ignored.
    4. Finally, they love the thrill of driving a race car. (It is more complicated than that, but that’s the one reason Richard Petty hung on long past his prime.)

    There are exceptions: Cale and Ned Jarrett quit in their prime (Cale, figuratively, and Ned, literally). Dale Earnhardt probably had a championship left in him, and no one in his right mind would have thought he was on the downhill leg, but the odds caught up with him.

    Generally speaking, however, the day a driver begins his slide is the day he realizes that he has something to lose. Might be caused by a serious injury — or in DW’s case, the birth of his first child — but the day a driver realizes he’s not infallible is the day he should begin thinking about hanging up the wheel.

  3. Mike Hodges says:

    Another great article Monte always look forward to reading them

  4. Andy DeNardi says:

    I’ve been saying for several years that Gordon would retire at age 45. Now I think he’ll quit one short of that. When Gordon came in at a younger age than most, and started in good equipment. People said he had the potential to beat Petty’s seven championships and run even longer than the King. Earnhardt was certainly in a hurry to get his seven before Jeff left him in the dust.

    When Johnson pulled five in a row, people began saying he’d top Petty as well. But no matter when they start, the best only seem to get twenty good years, and they’d be smart to get out after twenty-five. Particularly when the money is so good now. Gordon’s on season 21 now. A few years at the very top and the hunger to win fades just enough to make the difference. Driver’s Johnson probably has one more championship in him, but I expect that’s all. Stewart’s 2011 championship was certainly a thrill and all that could beat it now is seeing Gordon and Johnson neck and neck with one race to go.

    I never cared much for Jeff during his championship years. He complained a lot for someone who had struck a jackpot. As his fortunes fell, he gained wisdom. He still has a little too much sense of entitlement, but all in all he turned out well. I can’t wait for him to get itchy in his third year of retirement and come back to knock Darrell out of the booth.

    Tony Stewart will in racing as long as James Hylton or Hershel McGriff.

  5. Tony Geinzer says:

    Monte, I would like to see you in the Booth. Personally, I would like you more than the Waltrips.

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    Many thanks. I do my best, and I’m glad you’ve gotten something out of it.

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