Turning Point

This could be a very pivitol year in Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series career.

If he’s part of the Chase for the Championship — something he missed out on in 2005 — then it’s another strong season for the guy they used to call “Wonderboy,” and his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet team.

If the team suffers through another season like last, one in which he finished 11th in the points (his lowest since finishing 14th his rookie season in 1993), then you might find Gordon re-thinking his career plans.

Now 34 years old, Gordon has a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports, which he signed a few years ago much to the delight of team owner Rick Hendrick. Many figured he’d be racing forever, or at least until he won his eight NEXTEL Cup Series championship, surpassing both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

He hasn’t, however, won a title since 2001, when he collected the fourth of his illustrious career. Many also figured by now that he’d be one or maybe two championships closer to Petty and Earnhardt’s coveted record.

Things aren’t like they used to be for Gordon anymore, when it seemed as if Gordon was visiting Victory Lane every other week. No, winning races has become a bit more difficult now, and the days of his 10-plus victory seasons appear to be a thing of the past.

He’ll certainly never be able to recapture the magic of the 1998 season, when he won his second consecutive NEXTEL Cup championship and tied Petty for the modern era single-season victory record with 13, a year in which he won four races in a row. Nobody, even the likes of Tony Stewart, might ever do that again.

“It’s not that we should win a championship every year, but we certainly should be contending for race wins , and, on a fairly consistent basis, we should be up battling in that championship,” Gordon said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen every year. But when it’s not happening, when we’re not living up to our full potential, to me that’s what motivates us.”

Gordon is always looking for new challenges in his personal and professional life; and no one questions his highly competitive spirit despite the fact he has nothing left to prove as a NEXTEL Cup Series driver.

That’s what makes the 2006 season so intriguing. Things will be different for the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet team. With the departure of crew chief Robbie Loomis to Petty Enterprises, Gordon will combine with Steve Letarte, a long-time veteran at Hendrick Motorsports but a first-time NEXTEL Cup Series crew chief, in an attempt to revive the team’s championship past.

“I’ve known Steve for a long time,” Gordon said. “He’s known me. Personality-wise, I’ve felt like we’ve always gotten along well. He’s always been a great asset to the team. We’re definitely going through some changes in the off-season, and I think they are all positive ones that just build around Steve as the leader of this team. I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we’re able to say we’re championship caliber, but by the time the chase comes around, I think we will be.”

If they’re not, Gordon might begin to feel some pressure, as well as a bit antsy.

“When you come to work at Hendrick Motorsports, especially in the 24 car and the success we’ve had, there is a lot of expectations that goes along with it,” Gordon said. “You either step up to the plate or you have got to move on. I think that I take those things and I motivate myself from them.”

It will be interesting to see where the level of motivation is for Gordon come September, and where he and the DuPont team stand.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2006

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