CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Perhaps Jeff Gordon should have known what was to come this season, his final as a NASCAR driver, when he crashed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Then he crashed the next week at Atlanta and this farewell tour of sorts had officially stalled out of the gate.
It’s hardly been the season anyone hoped for the four-time champion and ambassador for the sport.
He was supposed to go out on top, racing for wins and that elusive fifth title. That’s what he appeared capable of last season, when he put together one of his strongest seasons in at least a decade.
Gordon came oh-so-close to racing for the championship in a year that reminded many of his early days. But he was denied a spot in the finale, and had he made it and won the title, he might have driven directly into retirement.
Instead, he waited until January to announce 2015 will be his 23rd and final year as a driver. He said he didn’t want a season full of celebrations, and he’s not getting any on the race track.
He closed out his road racing career Sunday at Watkins Glen in New York with a 41st-place finish, his worst showing at a track where he once won three consecutive times.
His problem Sunday was a faulty brake line in his No. 24 Chevrolet, and his day was ruined early.
“Well, it’s disappointing, but I mean right now I just feel like we can’t afford to have these kinds of finishes,” he said.
And he’s right. Gordon, who was 42nd two weeks ago at Indianapolis, has just one top-five finish since May. He’s winless this year and is 12th in the Sprint Cup standings with only four races remaining to set the 16-driver championship field.
“I have no idea where we are right now in points, or how all that worked out, but just when you think you get something that is going to go your way, something like this happens,” he said. “We just keep fighting and digging and try to get the finishes that we need to get ourselves solidly in (the Chase.)”
Sandwiched between Indianapolis and Watkins Glen was a third-place finish at Pocono, where he led two laps. Only problem: Gordon has led just five laps in the last three months.
It’s such a steep drop-off from last season, when he won four races, led over 1,000 laps and knocked down top-10 finishes in all but 13 races.
He knows he’s not running at the same pace he was last year, and he knows time is quickly running out. Gordon remains supportive of his Hendrick Motorsports team and their effort — he lauded where they are performance-wise, and in fairness, he does have four top-10s in the last six races — but they can’t have any slips the next month.
“Right now it is the unknown,” he said. “It is the concerns of freak things happening like what happened to us at Indy, what happened to us here. Those are things out of your control.
“We are all about the things you can control, and from that standpoint we are just trying to improve the performance of the car slightly. We are not far off though.”
Of the 16 slots in the Chase, 11 are presently claimed by race winners, including Kyle Busch, who moved into Chase eligibility on Sunday. With a month to go, there are five open slots for winless drivers, but nothing is guaranteed. A new winner would earn a berth, a bad finish for a contender can jumble the standings for those drivers jockeying for a final spot.
He doesn’t want to end his storied career on the outside looking in come the playoffs, and it wouldn’t be the proper way for such a strong champion to go out. Gordon heads this week to Michigan, where he was 21st in June, with the same goal he’s got every week.
“There are no guarantees unless you get that win. That win means so much,” he said. “I feel like we are doing what we need to do from the point standings point of view. Our goal is to win.”