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