It happens to the best of them: Father time catches up. That is the one opponent that every great athlete loses to. Father time is undefeated. Right now he is opening up a can on one-time Superstar Jeff Gordon.
Gordon came along in the early 1990s. Perhaps fittingly, he made his Sprint Cup debut the same day as King Richard Petty's farewell race. It was a memorable day in Atlanta as Gordon broke in, the King said goodbye and Alan Kulwicki won one of NASCAR's most memorable points races months before he and Davey Allison would die in separate air disasters.
NASCAR at the time was being dominated by a villain in a black race car. Dale Earnhardt was the man to beat every week in those days, and with Kulwicki's and Allison's death in mid-season of 1993, his competition was thinning out.
But then along came Jeff Gordon. He immediately set the sport on its ear when he finished fifth in the 1993 Daytona 500 with one career Sprint Cup start under his belt. He didn't win any races in his rookie year, but he had seven top-fives, including two at Daytona and two at Charlotte.
For the next decade, Gordon ruled the sport. In 1994, he got his first win at the 600-miler at Charlotte on the Memorial Day Weekend. Then in August, he won the first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Both of these were fitting wins for a kid who grew up dreaming of winning the Indianapolis 500, but realized the best of the best were now racing in NASCAR.
By 1995 he was starting to win races pretty regularly. He won seven times in 1995, and by the turn of the century he had already won 49 races including two Daytona 500 wins.
In the early 2000s he was still dominant at times, but not like in the late 90s. He did win at least three races every year from 2000-2004, with six wins in 2001 and 2004. But since 2005, he has a total of 20 wins with seven of those coming in 2007. He has a total of five wins in the last four seasons.
His slide started maybe not so coincidentally with the rise of Jimmie Johnson. Johnson's five consecutive Sprint Cup titles began in 2006. Only 2007 did Gordon win more than three times in that span.
Gordon may have suffered a bit from not being the best driver on his team anymore. Or perhaps he was getting a bit older and the young Johnson's reflexes and nerve may have been just a bit better. Who knows? But it is clear now that there is a difference in Johnson, his teammates Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Gordon.
In the Daytona 500, Gordon dominated the Duels on Thursday until he got a speeding penalty on pit road. That's one of those "don't beat yourself" moments that Gordon in his prime never seemed to do.
In the Daytona 500, he was right in the thick of things all day long. He had one of the best, if not the best, cars on the track. But when it became time to put up or shut up, he drifted backwards as his teammates fought for the win. He finished a disappointing 20th while Johnson and Earnhardt finished first and second.
So far in 2013, Johnson has a win, with two top-fives and three top tens in three races. Earnhardt has two top-fives and three top-tens, and Kahne had a second-place finish this past week. Where was Gordon? He was languishing back in 25th place, never a factor.
Not only is he not the best on his team now, he is fourth-best on a four-car team. His equipment is as good as anyone's in the sport. But is apparent that he cannot get it to where it needs to go anymore. It is sad to watch, but we've seen it before. One day we will watch Jimmie Johnson in the same situation. Father Time loses to no man.