How Much Does Jeff Gordon Have Left in the Tank?

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2013

Retirement is on the eventual horizon for Jeff Gordon, but hopefully we'll have him for at least a few more seasons.
Retirement is on the eventual horizon for Jeff Gordon, but hopefully we'll have him for at least a few more seasons.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

In 2010, when he was 38 years old, Jeff Gordon originally planned to hang up his firesuit and retire by 40.

It's obvious Gordon's plans have changed since then. He'll be 43 in August and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Which, of course, means retirement has gone from being in the forefront of his mind four years ago to something that has been placed on the back burner for the immediate future.

Gordon has little left to prove in his NASCAR career. With 88 Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup wins, he's the third-winningest driver in the sport's history behind Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105 wins).ย He also has four Cup championships, albeit the last being 12 seasons ago in 2001.

He has a number of outside business interests, is a regular guest on a variety of TV shows, has a great wife and family and could easily live out the rest of his life in the lap of luxury.

With all that, why is Gordon still racing? He doesn't have to, but rather, he wants to. His competitive spirit still burns inside, and even though he has acknowledged he may never win a fifth Cup championship, he still goes out year after year in another attempt to do just that.

The best part of all is that he's still competitive, even in the waning years of his career. His sixth-place finish in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup was his best season showing since he came in third in 2009.

What's more, since his first full-time season on the Cup circuit in 1993, Gordon has finished in the top 10 every year except once (11th in 2005, also the only season he's failed to make the Chase).

Admittedly, he needed a little help to make this year's Chase. NASCAR expanded the field to 13 drivers when it disqualified Michael Waltrip Racing's entry of Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase, thus allowing Gordon to compete in the playoffs when it initially appeared he would miss the Chase for the second time in his career.

All told, Gordon had a decent season in 2013, with one win, eight top-five finishes (albeit his lowest total in that category since 2005, when he also had just eight) and 17 top-10 showings.

He's also NASCAR's reigning iron man, with 725 consecutive starts.

Whereas in 2010, it was a question of when Gordon would retire, now it's more a question of if he'll retire. When becomes almost an inconsequential add-on.

Granted, Gordon has struggled for wins in recent years. The same driver who compiled 33 wins in three seasons (1996-98), has managed a total of just seven wins in his last six seasons, a stretch that included no visits to Victory Lane in both 2008 and 2010.

Gordon is still one of NASCAR's most popular and in-demand drivers. He can still wheel a stock car with the best of them, although maybe not quite as quickly as some of the sport's younger stars. He's also enjoying watching the success of teammate Jimmie Johnson, who has won six Cup championships in a race car that is shared in ownership between Gordon and Rick Hendrick.

Gordon's last Cup championship was in 2001.
Gordon's last Cup championship was in 2001.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

So, when will Gordon finally call it quits? He could surprise us all and race eight more years until he's 50, but that's unlikely.

Rather, if he misses the Chase in 2014 or 2015 (or both), that could be the likely signal he may pull the plug after the 2016 season. He'll still have his youth by then (he'd be 45), he would increase his lifetime earnings to close to $150 million (yes, you read that right) and he'd be ready to start a new career, perhaps as a broadcaster or expand his team ownership portfolio.

There's no question Gordon has been one of the sport's all-time greats. He's a definite first-ballot Hall of Fame selection and will long be considered the epitome of what a good stock car driver should be and emulated.

We all know retirement is coming for Gordon. It's inevitable. The last thing he likely wants to do is be like Richard Petty, who hung around until he was 55 years old, spent the last eight seasons of his fabled career without even one win and finished no higher than 22nd in any of his final five seasons.

Gordon will know when it's time to walk away. But if I can be slightly selfish, I hope he sticks around for at least a couple more seasons. After all, is it asking too much for his fans to start preparing themselves for his departure by wanting to see him as much as we still can?

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.


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