Are Jeff Gordon's title-winning days now in the rear-view mirror?
In 2002, it seemed inevitable that Jeff Gordon would win a fifth Sprint Cup title
Since then he's been successful but unable to capture that elusive championship
He can still reach 100 career wins, but another 'Wonder Boy' title seems unlikely
Ten years ago, Jeff Gordon kicked off an unofficial campaign known as the "Drive for Five." It referred to his efforts to win his fifth NASCAR Cup Series championship, a prospect that, at the time, seemed like an inevitability. After winning four titles in the previous seven seasons, there was no reason to believe that Gordon wouldn't eventually capture championship trophy No. 5. In fact, there was even speculation that Gordon -- using LeBron James math -- would win "not five, not six, not seven ..."
Seven, of course, is the magic number when it comes to Cup championships. That was the figure reached by legendary drivers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Gordon was 30 at the beginning of the 2002 season and he already was more than halfway to matching Petty's and Earnhardt's total. Petty had won only two of his championships by 30, while Earnhardt had just one title at that point. So why couldn't Gordon win three more? Heck, why couldn't he win four more and become the greatest champion in NASCAR history?
Well, somewhere along the way the "Drive for Five" took a wrong turn, wound up on a dirt rode and dropped a cylinder. Now it's in danger of running out of gas. Gordon might as well have hitched a ride in Tiger Woods' SUV. Because after magnificent record-breaking starts to both their careers, it now appears neither man will be able to catch the leading legends of their sports.
This is not to say that Gordon is coming off a lost decade. Far from it. Over the past 10 seasons he has won 27 Cup races. That total alone would place him 23rd on the all-time victory list. He has made the Chase for the Championship every season except one since it began in 2004. And the only time he failed to qualify, in 2005, he still had four victories and would have made the Chase had it been expanded to its current 12-driver format instead of 10.
But what Gordon has been unable to do is win another championship, something that in 2002 seemed so certain to happen. Instead, he was watched his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, shoot right past him and complete his own "Drive for Five." He has seen Tony Stewart win three titles and pull within one of matching Gordon's total. He has witnessed a number of younger drivers -- Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, etc. -- establish themselves as legitimate championship contenders for years to come.
And all the while, Gordon has remained on title No. 4, his championship drive stuck in neutral. Now the question is, will that elusive fifth title ever happen? Gordon has finished better than seventh in the final standings only once in the past four years, and that was a third-place showing in 2009 in which he dropped 102 points behind the leader after the first Chase race and never truly contended for the championship. Nearly a quarter of a way into this season he is 18th in the point standings, trailing the likes of Paul Menard and Joey Logano. Gordon even recently fell off of Forbes magazine's list of America's 10 Most Influential Athletes, a group that includes Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Despite all these negatives, we come today not to bury Gordon but to praise him. To point out how remarkable it is that he hasn't won a fifth championship (and more). To truly comprehend what a surprise that is, you have to remember what the scene was like in the late 1990s.
Gordon was indeed the "Wonder Boy," a moniker given to him by none other than (the older) Earnhardt. Gordon put up some staggering numbers from 1995 through 2001, posting 56 victories and 165 top-10 finishes in 267 starts. That means he won 21 percent of the time and finished in the top 10 at a 62-percent rate. In the three-season span of 1996-98, Gordon had 33 victories and 69 top-five finishes in 96 starts, meaning he won approximately one-third of all the races and finished in the top-five nearly three-fourths of the time. Those are absolutely ridiculous statistics.
Given that consistent level of dominance, why would anybody in 2002 have thought that Gordon's championship days were already behind him? There were serious discussions going on about whether Gordon could reach seven or even eight titles. A Drive for Five? Please. That was definitely going to happen. Until it didn't.
In Gordon's defense, he probably would have won at least one more championship and possibly two had NASCAR maintained the old season-long points format instead of changing to the 10-race Chase to determine the champion. He almost assuredly would have won the title in 2007, when he had a 300-point lead wiped out once the Chase began and ended up finishing second to Johnson.
But regardless of the championship format, few would have predicted that the 20-something Wonder Boy would fail to win another title after age 30. Could it be that time and success gradually wears away at the extra bit of desire and motivation needed to be the very best? Even Gordon suggests that could indeed be the case.
"The discipline that it would take to not get complacent, I don't know if anyone is capable of not being complacent when you are winning a lot of races," Gordon said before this season began. "We won 13 races in 1998, and while it felt good and it was exciting when we won our 10th, 11th and 12th races, it wasn't like the first one. It wasn't like the fifth one. To not take it for granted and to not get complacent I think is impossible when you are winning that much and you win that many championships back-to-back"
Nobody is about to predict that Gordon is done as a successful driver. He is 2½ months younger than Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup champion. He won three races last season and was a consistent top-10 presence, and he will most certainly win several more times. He has 85 career Cup victories and, if he is inclined to race long enough, can probably reach 100. He undoubtedly is one of the 10 greatest drivers in NASCAR history and the argument could be made that he belongs in the top five.
But as that 2001 championship fades further and further into the rear-view mirror, it is becoming increasingly likely that Gordon's "Drive for Five" has veered off onto a dead-end road.