During his media availability session last weekend at Dover International Speedway, Jeff Gordon dropped a major verbal bombshell that likely will continue to be a topic in the Sprint Cup garage for the remainder of the 2014 season.
According to the official Chevrolet manufacturer's transcript of the interview later posted to the JeffGordon.com, Gordon admitted that he had never before experienced the kind of back pain on a race weekend that he had the previous weekend at Charlotte.
And when asked directly by a reporter if it had made him think any more about retirement, Gordon responded candidly: "I can tell you if that happens many more times, I won't have a choice (regarding retirement)."
Gordon also went into greater detail about what he went through in Charlotte than he had previously. And what he said spoke volumes about what he will face for the rest of this season and perhaps for the rest of his career, which obviously will not last much longer if the future Hall of Fame driver—who will turn 43 years old this August—cannot get his back pain to calm down.
Gordon has experienced back problems that have stirred talk of his possible retirement previously.
In an interview prior to the 2009 season, he talked extensively about how he felt lower-back pain he started experiencing in 2008 had been brought on at least in part because he didn't take initial signs that he might have a back problem seriously enough. In the spring of that season, prior to a race at Richmond, Gordon said an MRI exam of his back revealed some arthritis as well as some other issues he preferred not to disclose.
Arthritis, once on the scene, never really goes away. It only gets managed.
According to ESPN.com, when a new regimen of exercise and training did little to ease the increasing pain, Gordon had something called a "facet block injection" performed prior to the Coca-Cola 600 in May 2009. Reporter David Newton of ESPN.com wrote that "a facet block injection is performed to decrease the pain and inflammation in a facet joint or joints in the back or neck, or to confirm that the facet joint is the source of pain."
For the rest of that season and presumably for the next four years, Gordon was pretty much able to manage whatever issues continued with his back. Or at least he never talked all that much about it, and he certainly drove competitively enough—although hardly with the same prowess he displayed earlier during his brilliant career.
But he did eventually admit that in addition to the arthritis, he also was dealing with degenerative discs in his lower back that no doubt take a pounding during a 600-mile race such as the one at Charlotte and perhaps even more so at a concrete track such as Dover with all its bumps and, at least last Sunday, flying chunks of pavement.
But before he even got to those two races, which he completed in courageous, gutty fashion, Gordon's back pain flared up so acutely that he had to sit out the final practice for NASCAR's longest race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and had to have another driver on standby for the Coca-Cola 600 because he wasn't sure he would be able to climb into the car.
When he talked at Dover about what he went through just to get behind the wheel for that race, it was revealing—and nothing short of alarming for what might lie ahead in the back two-thirds of the long grind that is a NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
"The issues that I've had in the past never really were like what I dealt with (that Charlotte) weekend," Gordon said.
That's the first time that something like that happened in the car, on qualifying day, into a race weekend. I've rolled out of bed and had things like that happen, and that's just being tight and just not having the muscles with blood flow and being loose, and that's part of just getting older. So, it was a little bit foreign to me to have that and that's why I had I get out of the car.
What he had to endure to get back in it sounded, well, horrifying to most everyone but perhaps pregnant women who routinely use at least part of the same procedure to ease pain during childbirth.
"The treatment that I had was that I had an epidural as well as another type of injection. I don't know what they call it. It's some type of Cortisone that's fairly typical and common," Gordon said in Dover.
Continuing on, he said: "I don't know all the different stuff that was in there that made the pain go away and helped more of the inflammation. ... So, that's the first time I've ever had to do that on a race weekend. I've done that before on a different part of my back that didn't really do much for me. This one luckily did."
Gordon said the difficulty lies in finding the right balance between rest and other treatment versus exercise when it comes to preparing for and even participating in a race weekend.
No athlete wants to resort to regular injections just to get into the game or, in this case, on the track. That usually only masks the real problem and frequently makes injuries worse in the long run.
"I think it really more pointed toward some things that I have to address throughout a race weekend and how I handle the downtime," Gordon added in Dover.
He went on to say:
I've been working a lot harder on my training and riding a bike and exercising, and the problem with that is that it tightens everything up even more so than normal. If I don't stay loose and ice and do other things that keep me loose when I get to the race weekend, what happened could possibly occur again. So, that's the biggest thing I'm focused on; (I'm) not thinking or focusing on anything else.
Gordon is a four-time Cup champion with 89 career victories in NASCAR's premier series, including one at Kansas Speedway less than one month ago. He's also a husband and father of two who is 42 years old, and he's going to want to be able to play with his kids when his driving career is over.
That's why his back will bear close watching throughout the rest of this season, if there are going to be any others for him after it.
All quotes from Jeff Gordon for this article were taken directly from a manufacturer's transcript of his group media interview in Dover last Saturday.
Unless otherwise noted, all other information for the article was obtained firsthand by the writer.
Joe Menzer is an author of two books about NASCAR and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.