By Jerry Bonkowski
It truly pains me to say this, but maybe Jeff Gordon picked the wrong year to retire.
Perhaps he should have given it another year or two before he hung up his helmet and firesuit for good.
Because, frankly, Gordon’s final season – unofficially dubbed his “Victory Tour” – is so far missing one very key component: victories.
And given how Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway was arguably the best chance to date for Gordon to reach Victory Lane – in front of family and friends, on his original “home track” and in the same area of the country he grew up in – the reality of what may still lie ahead is starting to greatly concern me.
Could it be that Gordon will fail to win even one race in 2015? Even worse, could it be that he fails to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the final time?
(It wouldn’t be the first time he’s missed the Chase. He failed to do so in 2005, even with winning four races that season!)
Is missing the Chase how his final season will play out? Is that what he’ll be remembered for? Is that what his legacy will conclude with, a frown rather than an exclamation mark?
Which leads me to yet another question:
Is it too late to give Gordon a mulligan and let him come back for 2016 – even if it means his designated replacement, Chase Elliott, has to put off the start of his Sprint Cup career for another year?
When this season started and Gordon was involved in late-race wrecks not of his doing at Daytona and Atlanta, they were typical and so-called “racing deals.”
But since then, Gordon has had issues on pit road during several races, as well as setup or pit strategies that have been questionable at the very least, and costly at best.
The same conundrum affected him at Sonoma. He had a strong race car and got off to a decent start in the race, but the setup that he and crew chief Alan Gustafson chose began to make the car’s performance go backward rather than forward.
Even during two pit stops, adjustments made couldn’t solve the problem. If anything, things got worse.
And then there was the rather unusual penalty that sent Gordon back to the tail line of the lead lap cars when one his crew members threw a spring rubber over Gordon’s car to fellow pit crew members behind the wall.
NASCAR does have a penalty, and rightly so, that crew members cannot throw equipment from pit road to behind the wall. But, a spring rubber? Really?
“That’s a new one on us,” Gordon admitted after the race.
If it wasn’t for bad luck, Gordon would have no luck at all.
I mean, given all the misfortune and unlikely instances like the spring rubber incident that he’s had to endure, it would almost be comical if it wasn’t really so sad.
But the sadness could get even worse, and that’s something I’m trying so hard to ignore.
With 10 races remaining in the run-up to the Chase, 11 drivers are locked in, with five others in contention through the number of points they’ve earned.
Because Kyle Busch became the 11th different winner of 2015, even though Gordon is ranked 11th in the Cup standings, he’s actually 14th in the Chase rankings.
Jamie McMurray (ranked seventh) and Kasey Kahne (ranked eighth) are both in the same boat as Gordon is: also winless. But there are four other lower-ranked and also winless drivers that are within 32 points of Gordon heading into Sunday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
If Gordon has any more slip-ups on pit road, is victimized by poor pit or setup strategy, or winds up being collected in additional wrecks created by other drivers in the last 10 pre-Chase races, he likely will not make the playoffs.
And there is precedent.
I harken back to Clint Bowyer (who happens to be one of those four other winless drivers immediately behind Gordon in the standings) last season.
Bowyer was ranked ninth in the standings after the 21st race of 2014 (second race of the season at Pocono). Five weeks later, after the final qualifying race at Richmond, Bowyer had fallen to 17th and missed the Chase.
That shows how quickly driver fortunes can change.
While I’m starting to grow just a bit pessimistic with each passing race he fails to win, I temper that by continuing to tell myself that there are still 10 races for Gordon to win and lock himself into the Chase.
All he needs is one.
But what do they say about one being the loneliest number?
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NASCAR Talk at NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.