LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Jeff Gordon isn’t quite ready to call it a career.
Not this year, at least.
He has one of his favorite tracks on tap and a sponsorship deal locked up for another three years, good news for Gordon and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports.
But questions still loom for the four-time Cup champion. Will he win this season? Can he bring home a fifth championship? And just how long does one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers plan to keep going?
He offered no clues Friday at Pocono Raceway, even if the three-year extension with Axalta Coating Systems — the sponsor formerly known as DuPont — seems to put an end date for the 41-year-old Gordon. Gordon refused to bite on questions that this deal would be his last, or, that he would even last to finish out the contract. The cocky kid who shot to superstardom in the 1990s and helped fuel NASCAR into unprecedented growth has turned into an elder statesman who knows he won’t be racing forever.
“Can you pencil any driver in for every weekend for every year,” Gordon asked. “I feel like the same things apply. Nothing has changed for me. We’re still competitive and still being challenged and have goals. My back is hanging in there.”
Gordon’s creaky back made him at least flirt with the idea of retirement a few years ago until a revamped workout program improved his health. He won five races over the last two years, which proved he still had it in the No. 24 after winless seasons in 2008 and 2010. He won one of his two races a year ago at Pocono, giving him a record six wins at the triangle track, including two in each of the last two seasons.
“I’ve always loved this track and continue to love it,” he said.
He’ll need more of the same on Sunday to help thrust him back into Chase for the Sprint cup contention.
Gordon is winless and stuck in 11th place in the points standings, one spot outside a guaranteed slot in the Chase. He would earn one of the two wild-card berths if he’s among the top two winners in 11th to 20th place. Ideally for Gordon, he cracks the top 10. Winning at Pocono would be a needed boost.
Gordon, third on the career wins list with 87, starts 11th because the field was set on points after rain washed out qualifying on Friday.
“We’re further up in points at this point this year than we were last year and I don’t feel like we’ve had a terrific season,” Gordon said. “We’ve certainly had our challenges, so it’s sort of refreshing to come to a place that we know we can win at and there’s a lot of different ways to win at this track.”
Gordon won a rain-shortened race last season, though he has a soft spot for the victory — it was the first time his wife and both of his two young children joined him in a Victory Lane celebration.
Still, it didn’t help him win a championship. Gordon won the last of his four championships in 2001 and that easily predates the Chase era.
Before he can truly put No. 5 in sight, he has to prove he can regularly run up front. Gordon has hit his season best with two third-place finishes in the last three races and put in a solid 400 miles last week at Dover.
With all his success at Pocono, it’s no surprise he’s in the center of the track’s latest promotion.
Pocono president Brandon Igdalsky is offering $10,000 to 10 fans who attend the race should the No. 24 pull into Victory Lane.
“I think Jeff can do it, so I’ll put my money where my mouth is,” he said Friday.
May as well try and win on Gordon now rather than wait a few more seasons. Gordon’s deal with DuPont’s paint division was complicated because of a sale, but it was finally completed this week. DuPont, once as much as fixture on Gordon’s car as the No. 24, scaled back its sponsorship and then sold the paint division to Axalta. Axalta agreed to sponsor the car for 10 races a year through 2016.
In NASCAR, sponsors and drivers are usually teamed together for the length of their contracts (like Jimmie Johnson and Lowe’s) but, ultimately, the sponsor is signed on with the team and car — not necessarily the driver.
Gordon’s primary sponsor, the AARP Foundation, is signed on only through 2014.
Gordon’s not going anywhere soon.
With the Axalta deal up in three years, no one really knows when Gordon is set to call it a career.
“The next seasons ahead were not guaranteed, so it’s pretty exciting to know that they have that interest and have been working with Hendrick to sign an extension,” Gordon said. “I want to race for a long time. I can’t say how long that is going to be at this time.”