If Jeff Gordon retired tomorrow, he would undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest drivers of his generation and, quite possibly, one of the greatest of all time.
His numbers are nothing short of astounding:
- 86 victories, third on the all-time list behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
- 291 top-five and 405 top-10 finishes in 676 career starts.
- 76 poles.
- 23,014 laps led.
- Four Brickyard 400 victories and three Daytona 500 victories.
- Only two points finishes outside the top 10 between 1993 and 2010.
Of course, the most important number of all is four: Gordon is a four-time Sprint Cup champion (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001)—more than anyone else in history not named Petty, Earnhardt or Johnson.
If Gordon retired tomorrow, these numbers would put him in the NASCAR Hall of Fame with the greatest of ease and cement his legacy as one of the best drivers ever to wheel a stock car.
Odds are, Jeff Gordon won't retire tomorrow.
But the question is: Should he?
Tomorrow, in this case, is a figurative term, of course. Gordon will clearly finish out 2012 as the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.
However, barring some miraculous show of strength over the next three races, Gordon will finish the year outside the top 12 in Sprint Cup points and outside the Chase for the Sprint Cup—which he has been a part of every year, save for one (2005).
Gordon's disastrous 2012 season has not been for lack of performance, speed or will. It's been mostly due to dismal luck that has been laughable at some stages—see his last-lap spin at Watkins Glen, which turned what would have been a 10th-place effort into a 21st-place result.
But even on the days when Lady Luck hasn't dealt him a low blow, it has appeared that the Jeff Gordon that hits the track every weekend in 2012 is not the same Jeff Gordon that owned the Sprint Cup circuit from 1995-2007.
In his heyday, Gordon was a threat to win just by showing up. In the era of "Wonderboy," when Gordon was joined by crew chief Ray Evernham and their "Rainbow Warriors," Gordon was so unstoppable that he became the most hated man in NASCAR simply by virtue of winning seemingly every week.
Much in the vein of Jimmie Johnson's string of championship seasons, fans cheered more when Gordon crashed than when their favorite driver won.
The man who terrorized the sport for most of the 1990s and early-to-mid-2000s, however, has won just four races in the last five seasons.
Three of those victories came last season, but Gordon finished eighth in the final standings. Other than the aforementioned 2005 season, when he won four races, 2011's eighth-place finish was the lowest ever for Gordon in a season in which he won at least three events.
Gordon turned 41 years old the day before his only win of 2012, three races ago at Pocono. Age in no way means he can't get it done—we're looking at you, Mark Martin—but Gordon just isn't the young hard-charger that he once was.
While he is still relevant, the name "Jeff Gordon" doesn't seem to strike the fear that it used to. His mere presence on the racetrack doesn't seem to mean certain victory contention as it did as little as five years ago, when he won seven races and finished second in points.
Some of the sport's greatest drivers are guilty of hanging on well past their prime. Gordon doesn't seem to be the type of driver to stick around too long (a la Richard Petty or Darrell Waltrip).
But, then again, neither did Petty or Waltrip.
Gordon is still competitive and still has a fighting chance to make the Chase as a wild card. After all, he has five wins at both Atlanta and Bristol and two at Richmond—the final three tracks before the Chase.
Tony Stewart showed in 2011 that once you're in, anything can happen.
If he misses the Chase, though, it may be time for Gordon to look in the mirror and figure out just how much longer he can compete at the Cup level.