I feel sorry for Jeff Gordon — a sentiment that, on its face, is almost ludicrous.
Married to a model, the father of two lovely children, a multimillionaire and a four-time champion at the highest level of his chosen profession, Gordon leads a life unlikely to evoke pity.
But on Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a knot of regret had tightened in Gordon’s stomach even before he pulled onto pit road after the AdvoCare 500.
Gordon had finished second to Denny Hamlin in a race he desperately needed to win. A victory likely would have propelled him into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
My sympathy for Gordon, however, has little to do with the probability that he will now miss the Chase for only the second time in his career. I feel for Gordon because he missed a moment — a rare moment, a defining moment — and immediately rued not doing what a champion of his stature should have done.
A two-lap shootout decided Sunday night’s race. Gordon restarted third behind Hamlin, with Martin Truex Jr. second on the outside of the front row. When Truex spun his tires on the restart, Gordon took second, and with a run off the second corner, he pulled alongside Hamlin on the backstretch.
But as the drivers entered Turn 3, and Hamlin started to pull ahead, Gordon failed to do what the heroes who have preceded him into the NASCAR Hall of Fame would have done.
Richard Petty would have used his bumper to move Hamlin out of the way. So would David Pearson. So would Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson and Rusty Wallace.
So would a younger Jeff Gordon.
“I guess I’m just getting soft in my old age,” said Gordon, who turned 41 last month. “Fifteen years ago, I would have just moved him right up the racetrack. I don’t know why I didn’t do that.”
Gordon hesitated, because he thought he might have another option.
“I thought I could get to his quarter panel and slow him down and stay there,” Gordon said. “But I got there, I just carried too much speed into 3, and it pushed up the racetrack.”
And what could have been an epic moment was gone.
Make no mistake. When Gordon chose to affiliate with the AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger, it did not mark the end of his own. Gordon’s foremost goal in racing is to win a championship under the Chase format.
Gordon likewise craves a title in the Jimmie Johnson era. Since Gordon introduced his heir apparent to team owner Rick Hendrick more than a decade ago, Johnson has won five championships, Gordon none.
So why didn’t he move Hamlin? The race winner attributed the lack of aggression to good will he’s accumulated since breaking into the Cup series six years ago.
“The reason he didn’t is because we have a mutual respect,” Hamlin said. “I haven’t moved him out of the way for a win or anything like that, and we race each other with respect. We have my entire career. So I’m sure that had something to do with it.”
Wrong. Gordon didn’t knock Hamlin out of the way because he thought, incorrectly as it turned out, that he had an alternative. And perhaps their history of clean racing bought Hamlin the split second of hesitation that sealed the outcome.
On Monday morning, though, Gordon posted to his Twitter account the same comments he made when he climbed from his car: “I should have just run into the back of him going into 3 & moved him up the track. . . .”
Yes, with a Chase spot on the line for himself, his team, his organization and his sponsor, that’s exactly what he should have done.
Deepening Gordon’s regret is the realization that next Saturday’s last-chance race at Richmond is unlikely to present a similar opportunity. True, Gordon can still make the Chase by winning at the .75-mile track, or by beating Kyle Busch by more than 12 points (provided neither Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose nor Joey Logano steals a Chase spot with a win).
But Gordon hasn’t won at Richmond since 2000. Busch, on the other hand, has been to Victory Lane there four times in the last seven races, and he and Hamlin together have won six of the last seven.
No, Gordon’s moment came Sunday night, when a late caution gave him a starting spot on the bottom lane, right behind Hamlin. Gordon roared into Turn 3 with a Chase berth in front of him, his season distilled into a single decision, and failed to seize the moment.
Gordon still has the heart and desire of a champion, but his instincts betrayed him — and we share his pain.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author