But in recent seasons, Gordon hasn’t been as dominant as he has been in years past. With all the extra attention in the Hendrick shops being devoted to Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the cornerstone of the modern era at Hendrick Motorsports has suddenly found himself relegated to something of second-banana status, almost as if his team has become the research and development team for Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, the performance has been there at times as Jeff has won as recently as 2009 and had several strong runs going, but he’s only won one time in a points-race in the last three years. Though, to be fair, the fact he hasn’t won has been seemingly mitigated by circumstances not of his own doing (namely questionable pit strategy, engine failures, or crashes.).
His 2010 season started off strong and he, at times, looked like the Jeff Gordon of old. But there were times this year where Gordon was not a factor and the most notable thing he achieved this year was his scritch-fight with Jeff Burton. He’s even criticized his team-mate (and technically his employee) Jimmie Johnson at times for on-track moves and it almost seems as if Jeff has hit a personal and professional rut with Hendrick Motorsports. In fact, he has seemed to be so unhappy this year that one can’t help but wonder if perhaps the time has come for Jeff to fly the coop on Rick Hendrick, the only team owner in NASCAR he’s ever really known, outside of a two-year Busch Series stint with Bill Davis. At first, the idea sounds like a stretch as Jeff seems to be a company man, for better or worse. But by the same token, he would unquestionably be the cornerstone of any operation that he went to and be the team’s top priority instead of being basically used for research and development, as he seems to be doing at Hendrick now.
Plus, as the typical racer’s ego is known to do, losing like this has to be eating away at Jeff Gordon. He knowns he can’t have too many more seasons like this or he will quickly become irrelevant in the NASCAR landscape in terms of being consistently competitive. Of course, it can be argued that this happens to most every driver. It happened to Darrell Waltrip, it happened to Richard Petty, it has happened to many others as well. But Jeff’s career is far from over. At 39 years old, he still has at least four or five good seasons left in him. The question is does Jeff want to continue in his lesser role at Hendrick or does he want to be the top guy in an organization again?
The bottom line is that perhaps Jeff Gordon has reached a bit of a career plateau at Hendrick and maybe a change of scenery would do him and his career some good. Few have come out and said so, but you can almost see that there is some animosity on Jeff’s end that he’s no longer the reigning king of Hendrick Motorsports. Now, I’m not saying Jimmie Johnson didn’t deserve to usurp Jeff’s top-dog status at Hendrick. He actually earned it with his five straight championships. But I think now that Jeff sees that the changing of the guard at Hendrick is complete, he has to be wondering if it’s really worth staying on at Hendrick Motorsports if the best he can hope for is just cracking the top 10? Maybe the pairing of him and Alan Gustafson will reinvigorate his career and silence the doubters, but until that day, the question remains could Gordon be winning races elsewhere?