When he turned 37, Jeff Gordon talked numerous times about retiring and how he wouldn't be racing by the time he was 40.
Fast-forward six-plus years and Gordon not only is still racing in NASCAR, he may very well be behind the wheel for another 10 more years with the kind of success he's enjoying in 2014.
Gordon, who earned his third win of the season on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, has not only gotten a second wind for his career, he's performing in a way that we haven't seen in a long, long time.
And there's no one better to speak to that than team owner Rick Hendrick.
“I think what I see now with Jeff today is how smart he is,” Hendrick said after Sunday's race in the Michigan International Speedway media center. “If someone gets in front of him or is trying to block him like they did today, instead of pushing the envelope like maybe he did in the early years, he’ll just back off and let them use their stuff up, then he’ll pass them.
“You just don’t see him make any mistakes. I think all of his years of experience is paying off for him right now. ... I’ve never seen him with just enough aggressiveness. When he drove down in the corner, the quarter panel, at 210 mph (during Sunday’s race), that’s what the young Jeff Gordon did."
Gordon doesn't have to race anymore. He's a multimillionaire, is one of the most marketable and recognizable athletes in the world, and could very easily transition to a broadcast booth if not host a regular TV show (he's done that numerous times).
But something keeps Gordon coming back year after year. It's not the money, not the fame, not the media hype.
Rather, when you break down why Gordon is doing so well into its rawest form, there's no question that the reason he's still racing is also the reason why he got into racing in the first place: He is all about competitiveness and winning.
That's his paycheck; not the millions of dollars he makes each year.
Instead of $10 million, he's chasing a trophy, the Sprint Cup. He has embraced this year's "drive for five" and is doing everything in his power to earn his fifth career Sprint Cup championship before teammate Jimmie Johnson earns his seventh.
It wasn't too long ago that challenging his Hendrick Motorsports teammate for a championship seemed impossible. From 2008 through 2010, Gordon won just one race. Retirement definitely appeared to be in his immediate future.
But then something happened. Gordon got more than a second win or second chance at success. Instead, it's like he's started his career all over again.
After just one win in the three prior seasons we mentioned a moment ago, he's now earned nine in the last three-and-a-half seasons, with Sunday marking his third visit to Victory Lane already in 2014.
And there's still 13 more races to earn more victories.
Sure, Gordon still thinks about retiring, just not as much. About the only time he ever speaks about it these days is when he has occasional flare-ups of back pain.
But even the pain won't keep him out of a race car.
In addition to the 91st win of his career, Gordon is NASCAR's reigning iron man. Sunday was his 748th consecutive start. At the rate he's going, Gordon may reach 900 races and 100 wins—or more.
Even though he's been asked numerous times about what it is that has brought about his resurgence and renaissance, Gordon is as mystified as anyone.
"There's got to be some advantages to being 43 (years old) out there," Gordon said after Sunday's race. "I would hope being more patient and using your head a little bit more would be one of them.
"I've always felt like to be a top driver in this series you got to balance that out with aggressiveness, being smart, utilizing your equipment, making the most of it. Right now, I've got great race cars. That's obvious. I've got a great crew chief that believes in what I'm doing out there, and I believe in what he's doing, and the engineers.
"Right now I feel like I'm driving smart, but also when it comes down to the restarts, I'm confident in my car enough that I can put it in places I haven't been able to put it in the past and be a little bit more aggressive when it matters. Certainly things are going well, no doubt about that. I'm as shocked as anybody else."
Maybe his resurgence has to do with his kids, Leo and Ella. In the races that they've attended where he's visited Victory Lane, like last month's record fifth Brickyard 400 triumph, Gordon beamed at being able to share such a special moment with his children.
Maybe it has to do with Johnson's success. While he'll likely never admit it, maybe Gordon has just simply grown tired of Johnson winning so many races and championships.
For much of Johnson's six championship seasons, Gordon was all but a forgotten man. Sure, he is co-owner of Johnson's team with Hendrick, but the more Jimmie won the more Jeff faded into the background.
When fans and media began to refer to Johnson as NASCAR's G.O.A.T.—Greatest of All Time—after his sixth crown last season, maybe it lit a spark under Gordon.
He not only wants a fifth title desperately, No. 6 and No. 7 may be in his future.
As ESPN's Mark Ashenfelter put it:
Gordon (is) driving with a fire burning brighter than it seemingly has in years. ... If Gordon can navigate the minefield the new-look Chase will throw at drivers, he can finally shed the "Four-Time" moniker he's carried since he won his fourth Cup championship back in 2001.
Sunday's race was somewhat of a visual metaphor to Gordon's career over the last six-plus seasons.
It started gloomy and misty, much like Gordon's performance and success was back in that fateful 2008-through-2010 period.
But by the end of the race, things had changed in a most unique fashion. As Gordon celebrated in Victory Lane, even though rain was in the area, a brief burst of sun shone through the clouds.
El Sol didn't appear long enough to really gather much notice as fans were leaving the stands and adjacent parking lots, but it was enough to prove one thing: Just like he shined in the race and the way he's done so many times already this season, someone or something is shining down on Gordon.
Maybe the all-too-simple answer to Gordon's resurgence: It's Gordon's time to shine in the sun again.
If Gordon is at a loss to explain his own success, maybe he and everyone else should simply forget trying to overanalyze and simply enjoy it.
And also get used to the fact that Gordon isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Unless indicated, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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