By Jerry Bonkowski
Just like NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, there will never be another Jeff Gordon.
At the age of 44, Gordon didn’t have to retire. He likely had another three to five good years of racing left in him. He very likely could have added to his 93 career wins, and potentially to his four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.
He could have taken home a few more iconic grandfather clocks from Martinsville Speedway (he has nine). He also could have added to his record five Brickyard 400 victories or his three Daytona 500 triumphs.
He could have continued his love affair with the “Lady in Black” at Darlington Raceway and added to his seven career wins there.
But, honestly, how much would all that really have mattered in the long run? What ultimately was left for Gordon to accomplish that he hasn’t already achieved – and with such superb aplomb?
Basically, when you boil it down, three simple words best describe why the future NASCAR Hall of Famer retired: It was time.
Sure, Gordon likely would have loved to win another championship or two, maybe even challenge Richard Petty’s and Dale Earnhardt’s record seven career Cup crowns.
But after trying for 14 years following his fourth and last Cup Series crown in 2001, the odds of Gordon winning another title got smaller and smaller with each passing season.
Sure, he could have stuck around for a few more years and added several more millions of dollars to his bank account.
But for arguably the wealthiest driver in NASCAR, money can only be incentive for so long.
Sure, he could have kept driving for Hendrick Motorsports, his racing home and family for the last 23 seasons.
But it was his real family – wife Ingrid, daughter Ella and son Leo – Gordon simply could not shortchange time-wise anymore.
Sure, Gordon proved he could still go head-to-head with every driver out there, be they fellow veterans like Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kevin Harvick, as well as youngsters like Joey Logano and Kyle Larson.
But with so many promising up-and-coming drivers on the near horizon, Gordon waited until everything was right – the right successor with the right pedigree (Chase Elliott) came along at the right time to fill his seat. As such, everyone wins: Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, Elliott, NASCAR and the fans.
n Sure, Gordon could have retired a few years back. He once said he would not still be racing by the time he reached 40. Several times he was ready to walk away, particularly when beset by nagging back pain that made it uncomfortable – if not almost impossible – to drive. Still, he soldiered on and set a NASCAR longevity mark in the process: never missing a race during his 797 career Sprint Cup starts.
But it was team owner and arguably Gordon’s best friend in NASCAR, Rick Hendrick, who convinced the man known as “Wonder Boy” to give it another year or two (when it actually wound up being four or five more years) – until for Gordon, there were no more years to give.
Yes, Gordon has come a long way from growing up first in Vallejo, California, and then Pittsboro, Indiana. From those humble roots, he’s become one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.
He’s also the last major remaining link among active drivers to the proverbial “old school” style of racing. No matter who you were – be it the late Dale Earnhardt, Terry or Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett or so many others – you knew when you saw that No. 24 Chevrolet on the starting grid, you were in for a hard, yet clean race.
Gordon has been one of the most gentlemanly types to ever compete in NASCAR. But racing is only a facet of his life. He’s also become a successful businessman, including owning half of Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team in addition to an equity stake in the No. 24 car.
And then there’s the side of Gordon that has never gotten enough attention in my opinion: his humanitarian side, raising and giving millions of dollars through his Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Foundation.
While he’s done driving in NASCAR’s premier series, Gordon will remain involved in the sport as an analyst for FOX Sports’ coverage of NASCAR.
NASCAR racing will not be the same without Gordon, much like it hasn’t been the same without Earnhardt, Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and so many predecessors.
Frankly, it’ll take some getting used to not only not seeing Gordon in the No. 24, but also to see Elliott in his stead. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott has some mighty huge shoes to fill.
No, Jeffrey Michael Gordon didn’t have to retire. But he’s left us with so many great memories to last a lifetime.
That’s one thing that will never, ever retire.
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NBCSports.com’s NASCAR Talk and MotorSportsTalk. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski