Jeff Gordon up to all standards except his own, and his protege's

DAYTONA BEACH

He is nearing his 40th birthday, and is clearly over the hill.

He has won only one race in the past three years, and is obviously slowing down.

He has been completely upstaged by the kid he hired, and completely overwhelmed by the legacy he built. Sad to say, Jeff Gordon appears to be nearing the end of his road as an active legend.

If only he would stop passing cars.

Yes, it is an odd thing to be beaten over the head with your own success. For there was a time when Gordon was collecting more victories at a younger age than any driver who had ever gotten behind the wheel of a stock car.

Which is why the shortage of checkered flags in recent seasons has grown so noticeable. It's almost as if a temporary slump gave way to a new reality. Almost as if his foray into management coincided with his decline as a driver.

But here's the rub:

Gordon is still racking up points with greater regularity than any NASCAR driver except one.

The problem is he is not matching the standard of his protege, Jimmie Johnson. Or even the standard of his youth.

"I can tell you it hasn't been quite as much fun the last couple of years," Gordon said. "We have still been fairly competitive, just not as competitive as we've been in the past. Now it's a goal and a challenge to get back and see, "Do I still have what it takes?'

"I think this year is a real test for me."

Gordon is one of three drivers — Johnson and Denny Hamlin are the other two — to have qualified for the season-ending Chase for the Championship in each of the past five years. And he has been in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings in 16 of the past 17 seasons.

So vision tests and right-hand lanes probably are not in his immediate future.

But, the truth is, Gordon has been more consistent than dramatic in recent seasons. He knows how to stay out of trouble, and he knows how to maximize point totals, so he has given the appearance of being more competitive than he has probably been.

Or here's a simpler way of putting it:

In his past 113 starts, Gordon has one victory. There was a time, during his peak, when Gordon won 37 times in a 113-race span.

Back then, Gordon seemed a cinch to rival some of the greatest numbers in NASCAR's record books. He won 55 races in his 20s, only five fewer than Richard Petty had. He won four Cup titles at age 30, three more than Dale Earnhardt had.

But where Petty's career took off at age 30, and Earnhardt picked up steam at 35, Gordon has slowed. He has gone nine seasons without a Cup champion­ship, and he has dropped to 27 victories in his 30s.

He's no longer much of a threat to match the seven titles won by Petty and Earnhardt, and it's no longer a foregone conclusion that he will join Petty and David Pearson as the only drivers with 100 or more career victories. Gordon goes into this season at 82.

It might be modesty talking now, or maybe disappointment, but Gordon said he never considered himself a threat to reach seven championships, even though he was more than halfway there at such a young age.

"I never thought it was a reality. I just looked at seven like it was crazy to be able to do that," Gordon said. "We went on a heck of streak there, and you just hope to keep that going for as long as you can. But you never know when the day comes and the momentum slows down and stops, and then you have to reinvent yourself.

"Once it dies down, you can never have it quite like it was when you were at that peak. Not if you had the kind of success that (Johnson) is having, that I had, or even Richard or Dale."

If seeing Johnson's success up close has been painful for Gordon, he does not let it show. Still, it is not hard to notice that Gordon won the Cup title in 2001 and then, along with Rick Hendrick, became a co-owner of Johnson's No. 48 car in 2002.

Gordon finished fourth in points that season, and Johnson finished fifth. Since then, Johnson has finished ahead of Gordon every single season.

In an effort to shake things up for both Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick moved crew chiefs around for the 2011 season. Steve Letarte joins Junior after five seasons with Gordon, and Alan Gustafson is Gordon's crew chief after working with Kyle Busch and Mark Martin in recent seasons.

"I never expected to make it to this level. I never expected to win one race, let alone 82," Gordon said. "I don't have to win another race to be content, to be happy with my career, with my life.

"But, you know, when you work for Hendrick Motorsports and you've had the success that we've had, you want to keep it going. You don't know how many more years you have left in you. You don't know how many more races you can win. You want to seize those opportunities."

Once, he was the youngest Cup champion in modern history at 24. Now, he is six months from his 40th birthday. As always, the race is on for Jeff Gordon.

Jeff Gordon up to all standards except his own, and his protege's 02/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 3:49pm]

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