Back in January, when Jeff Gordon announced that 2015 would be his last year competing full time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, he expressed high hopes for the season that was about to begin.
“I’m going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship,” said the four-time Cup title winner.
But 2015 started off with a series of setbacks for Gordon and the No. 24 team. He led 87 laps in the first half of the season-opening Daytona 500 after starting on the pole, but a frustrating restart in the latter half of the race shuffled Gordon back in the pack. He was then caught up in a multi-car collision on the final lap of the race, limping across the start-finish in 33rd place.
The result was certainly disappointing for Gordon’s last appearance as a full-time Cup contender in the Great American Race. The NASCAR star had entered every Daytona 500 since 1993, winning three (1997, 1999, 2005). But the poor finish to start the season was made more disconcerting by the fact that it relegated Gordon to 28th in the points standings – a deep hole that he could, conceivably, spend the rest of his farewell season trying to dig out of.
Drivers know that the Daytona 500, like all restrictor plate races, is something of an anomaly compared to the non-plate races that make up the majority of the NASCAR season. So Gordon remained optimistic heading into the second race of the year at Atlanta, where he’d previously scored five Cup wins, the most among active drivers.
Unfortunately, Atlanta did not go his way, either. He started the race 36th after a controversial qualifying session in which NASCAR’s inspection process kept Gordon and several other drivers off the track for the early portion of qualifying. He failed to lead a lap in the race – at a track where he’s led 1,297 – and finished a dismal 41st after a four-car crash on lap 258.
Atlanta buried Gordon even further in the points standings, from 28th to 36th.
“We were struggling. We didn’t have the 3M Chevrolet that I thought we were going to have,” said Gordon after the race. “But we weren’t giving up on it.”
Never giving up. It’s an attitude that has characterized Gordon’s NASCAR career – from the winning years to the lean years and all points in between.
Jeff Gordon – winner of 92 Cup races, third on the all-time wins list – has the heart of a champion.
It’s that intangible drive to persevere – through changes and challenges, illnesses and injuries, disappointments and despair – which epitomizes only the most elite of competitive athletes.
After Atlanta, the No. 24 team rebounded to an 18th-place finish at Las Vegas (where he started on the pole), followed by consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix, Fontana, Martinsville and Texas.
And just as quickly as he fell into a deep points deficit, Gordon had excavated himself, climbing 23 spots from 36th to 13th in five weeks.
Whether Gordon is able to pull off the ultimate comeback story and finish 2015 with a fairytale ending – finally claiming that elusive fifth championship – remains to be seen.
But the future hall-of-famer can rest assured that his legacy is already in place.