What happened to the Jeff Gordon of old?
Whatever happened to the hotshot "Rainbow Warrior" of the '90s and early '00s, the three-time Daytona 500 winner and four-time Sprint Cup champion? What happened to the babyfaced prodigy who once toasted Dale Earnhardt with a champagne glass full of milk at the end-of-season awards banquet?
Once upon a time in the faraway land of 1998, Gordon, piloting a rainbow-hued Chevrolet, dominated by winning 13 races during the season. What else makes this notable was that he had posted back-to-back 10 win seasons.
Gordon wasn't even a decade into his career and already he was at his peak.
Yet following his championship in 2001, things just seemed to go south. Granted, a three-win season followed by a top-5 in points in 2002 is a result that many other hopeful drivers would kill for, but it just wasn't up to par for Gordon.
From 1994 to 2001, a seven-year stretch, Gordon recorded 58 wins. But from 2002 to 2012, he recorded only 29 wins. Hardly anything to gripe about, but honestly speaking Gordon's decline can be attributed to his age.
It's nothing new in the racing community. As a matter of fact, it seems the only driver immune to the aging curse is Mark Martin. Keep in mind that Gordon was 22 closing in on 23 when he posted his first-career win in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. But when he turned 30 in 2001, he seemed to lose his competitive edge. He faded from the spotlight in 2002 and 2003 before posting five wins in 2004 and a third-place finish in points. He won the Daytona 500 in 2005 but missed the Chase. In fact, the last time we would see anything close to the Gordon of old was in 2007. Six wins, a modern-era record of 30 top-10 finishes, and a runner-up finish in points.
He has aged gracefully though. While he's still a front-runner these days, the torch has since been passed to his successor Jimmie Johnson. Gordon still wins, still runs up front (as evidenced by his third-place finish in last week's Southern 500, his 300th top-5 in his 700th start), and still continues to be a model spokesman for the sport.
But he's matured over the years thanks to the trials and tribulations faced as both a driver and a man. A messy divorce from his first marriage, more frequent sub-par results, and the loss of several members of the Hendrick Motorsports family in 2004 seemed to humble Gordon, if anything.
Now, with a wife and two kids as well as the knowledge that he has accomplished everything he could in NASCAR, Gordon seems more focused in preserving his interests for the future. He doesn't have too much longer to go before he hangs up his helmet, but when he does he'll be an enlightened individual all the same.
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