CONCORD, N.C. – Jeff Gordon has almost finished the lengthy process of building the North Carolina home where he plans to raise his children.
That, team owner Rick Hendrick said, is all the insurance he needs to keep the four-time Sprint Cup champion behind the wheel for a long time.
“Have you seen that house he’s building? He’s going to be driving at least 10 more years,” Hendrick said Wednesday.
With a new three-year sponsorship announced Wednesday, Gordon is sure to be driving through at least 2013 to fulfill his new obligation to the AARP Foundation’s “Drive to End Hunger” campaign. Beyond that is anyone’s guess, including Gordon’s.
“There really is no set plan,” he said after his announcement. “Five years ago, I thought 2010 might be my last year. I was having some issues with my back and I just thought maybe I would be ready to step away. But I’m not. I am so passionate about it. I am still competitive and my health, from my back standpoint, has gotten better and that’s giving me years to be behind the wheel.”
But the numbers don’t lie.
He’s in his 18th full season, is 38 years old, has just one win over the last three seasons and is mired in a career-worst 61-race drought. After starting the year well and establishing himself as a title contender, he’s fizzled in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
With four races remaining, Gordon is fifth in the standings and declared his championship chances over even before his round of bumper-cars with Kurt Busch last weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
A season that had so much promise early in the year – Gordon was ranked second in the standings most of the “regular season” – has petered out and nobody knows why.
“I wish I could answer that,” Hendrick said. “He ran so good, and all of the good luck we’ve had over the years, for him to be so snakebit. Speeding on pit road, that’s just not Jeff Gordon, two of those (penalties). And then just the deal with Busch. It’s been uncharacteristic of that team and again, the way we started, so strong, and the cars have been running good.
“It’s not from lack of being competitive. We’ve led a lot of races, we’ve been up front, just for whatever reason, we’ve been a little snakebit.”
But Gordon is realistic.
He’s accepted all year that his No. 24 team wasn’t running at the same level as teammate Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who rank first through third in the standings.
Gordon’s only shot, he figured, was to be consistently good over the final 10 races.
Based on how he’d run earlier this year, it didn’t seem to be a stretch.
“I don’t know if we really have been strong enough to be there outperforming the (others),” he said. “I think our key to success in the Chase was to be consistent and get some top-10s and make those guys have to get those wins and make sure they stay on top of their game. That hasn’t gone as planned.”