AVONDALE, Ariz. – Maybe this is the prologue. Maybe this is to make you appreciate what is about to come. Something to remind you that for as easy as Jeff Gordon has made it look all these years, this is how truly difficult it is to win and succeed in NASCAR.
A month into his send-off season, Gordon scored his first top-10 finish when he placed ninth at Phoenix International Raceway. Until Sunday’s run, Gordon’s most memorable moments this year have been crashes and the gifts the four-time champion received from tracks.
Gordon will tell any track that the best gift it could offer is to cover all its concrete walls with SAFER barriers. Gordon doesn’t need any more highlights of his car crumpling into an uncovered concrete wall.
On the track, the highlights have been few.
Gordon started from the pole and appeared headed toward a top-10 finish in his final Daytona 500 before he was collected in an eight-car crash on the final lap. The randomness of restrictor-plate racing is among the reasons why, even if Gordon returns to drive in any races next year, it won’t be at a restrictor-plate track.
At Atlanta, he was clipped from behind, sending him into the inside backstretch wall just beyond where the SAFER barrier ended.
Yes, there was the pole at Las Vegas, but that advantage was wiped out after contact with Danica Patrick’s car in the waning seconds of the final practice session forced Gordon to a backup car.
Sunday at Phoenix, Gordon was third with about 85 laps left, giving his fans hope that something special could happen. Gordon showed some speed, but it wasn’t enough to contend for the win. Kevin Harvick outran the field just as Gordon used to do so often. A late pit stop dropped Gordon to 11th, and there wasn’t enough time to get closer to the front than ninth.
“We had a decent race car, and we showed that as we got track position,’’ he said. “There at the end, it was just kind of a judgement call whether to come in and take tires or not. As it turned out. that might not have worked in our favor, but, hey, some of those are going to go your way and some of those aren’t.”
So what happens next? Gordon has shown speed at the bigger tracks but not the quickness Harvick and teammate Jimmie Johnson displayed at Las Vegas. This week’s race at Auto Club Speedway is another chance to see where Gordon’s team compares to those drivers and the field on a big track.
It’s also another opportunity for something special. While 32 races remain, think about how quickly the last month has gone. Only eight months remain in Gordon’s final full-time Sprint Cup season.
The end is coming. It’s just a matter of what this final chapter of Gordon’s Cup career will entail. Will it be a happy ending?