Is 41 too old to be a champion? Jeff Gordon doesn’t think so

Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013

Jeff Gordon is 41. He’s 8 years older than Steve Smith, the oldest player on the Carolina Panthers, and 8 years older than Brendan Haywood, the oldest player on the Charlotte Bobcats.

But he’s 13 years younger than fellow driver Mark Martin.

“Mark is an extraordinary creature, so he’s an exception to the rule,” Gordon said Wednesday at Hendrick Motorsports during the Charlotte Motor Speedway media tour.

What is the rule?

When do the qualities that distinguish a driver – instincts and timing and daring and finesse – abandon him?

If you don’t believe a driver is an athlete, you’ve never attended a race. Because drivers are athletes they are subject to the limitations all athletes are. There comes a time when, no matter how savvy they are, their bodies can’t take them where they need to go.

In racing, that’s Victory Lane.

Gordon is fit and lean, and his brown hair longer than usual. In his hair and sideburns are touches of silver.

I pose the question to him. When does a driver get old?

“I think it changes all the time,” he says.

Gordon adds: “I feel like I’m a smarter driver now than I ever was before but I’m probably not as aggressive in certain situations as I used to be. So you hope those things balance themselves out over time. And I feel that they have.”

Gordon ran his first Sprint Cup race in 1992. When was 1992? It was when “Silence of the Lambs” won the Oscar for best picture, “Murphy Brown” the Emmy for best comedy and Ric Flair the WWF title (not his first). Computers existed. The Panthers and Bobcats did not.

Gordon quickly became a star, the first star of his kind. He looked good, spoke well and neither chewed tobacco nor wore a belt buckle the size of a paperback. Born in California, he helped take NASCAR out of the South and sell it nationally.

And, man, could he drive. He won four championships, the last of them in 2001.

Since 2000 Gordon has finished out of the top 10 only once. He was second in ‘07 and third in ‘09. Since then, he has finished ninth, eighth and, last season, a strange season, 10th.

“As you get older certain things change,” says Gordon. “Your body changes and you’ve got to figure out that point at which it can’t keep up with what you need.”

Drivers know more about how to take care of their bodies and what to put into them than they ever have.

“Listen, there was a time I didn’t think I was going to be racing at 40,” says Gordon.

I’m not trying to rush Gordon out of the sport. He’s smart and gracious, treats fans wonderfully and at times last season was as good as anybody.

“The really talented guys are good into probably their mid 40s to late 40s,” says Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “I think (Dale) Earnhardt Sr. and Terry Labonte, they were smart racers. They learned how to race and they learned when to race.

“I saw Jeff do so much of that. But he’s still got the talent to be up front and race hard and lead. So it just depends on the individual.”

Can you envision, after a 13-year intermission, a fifth championship for Gordon, which would tie him with teammate Jimmie Johnson?

“I think so,” says Hendrick. “Jeff is as fired up and as committed as I’ve ever seen him. He’s in great shape and he’s at a place where he’s got something to prove.”

Gordon talks about life after racing.

“I’d be prepared for it,” he says. “But also I’m as excited about the future that I have when the day comes that I’m not driving the race car – in motorsports, maybe even some other opportunity, and my kids and my family and that life.

“So I feel like I have a whole ‘nother step of life and career ahead of me that if I selfishly race until I’m 50 or 52 I think it’s going to take away from some of those opportunities. ... I’m not saying that’s the case for Mark. I’m saying it because of what I see lying ahead for me.”

Lying to the side, not far from the wall, is the Monte Carlo SS Gordon will race this season.

“Now that’s a race car,” Gordon says.

He looks at the car the way a 15-year-old would. There’s appreciation and even a little awe, and the silver in his hair no longer is apparent.

Sorensen: 704-358-5129 or; Twitter: @tomsorensen