My Brain on NASCAR: Are Gordon and Tiger spinning their wheels?

col-cathyelliott (2)During the week of June 18, 2007, I publicly cracked what has gone down in local lore as one of the worst jokes ever spoken aloud on the radio. It went something like this:

Within the past couple of days, Tiger Woods and Jeff Gordon both became first-time fathers. Tiger’s new daughter is named Sam, and Gordon’s little girl is named Ella. So I guess you could say the professional sports world has been hit with a case of Sam-n-Ella.

Sam-n-Ella. Get it? (If not, don’t fret; you are not alone.)

I remembered that unfortunate pun while watching The Masters last weekend, first of all because it reminded me there’s a reason why I’m not a comedy writer; second because Woods’ and Gordon’s daughters were born only two days apart; and third, because I believe it was the first time in nearly eight years I had thought about the similarities between Gordon and Woods.

Gordon finished seventh at Texas Motor Speedway, and Woods survived a final-round injury scare to finish The Masters tied for 17th; no trophies or green jackets for either of them, but pretty respectable nonetheless.

This is what’s bothering me: At what point does “respectability” cease to be enough of a reason to continue grinding it out every weekend? When you’ve been at the very pinnacle of your sport, is simply being competitive enough incentive to keep going? It depends on who you ask.

Tiger Woods joined the PGA tour in 1996 (nearly 20 years ago), won his first major tournament in 1997; he has won a total of 14 majors so far, and has racked up a whopping 79 PGA career victories, placing him second on the all-time win list behind – wait for it – Sam Snead. Not too shabby.

He has been plagued by back trouble in recent years, which naturally has affected his performance on the course, but, if you believe what you’re told (by him), Tiger is pretty tough. After injuring his wrist on the ninth hole of The Masters, he administered a little impromptu field surgery.

“A bone kinda popped out and a joint kind of went out of place, but I put it back in,” he told CBS broadcasters after the match. Whether you’re a Woods fan or not, that’s wicked cool.

Jeff Gordon’s first season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was 1992. He won his first race in 1994, the first of his four championships in 1995, and to date has 92 winner’s trophies on what must be one of the longest, sturdiest mantles in all of sports.

Like Woods, Gordon has suffered with back problems – spasms, to be specific – but in a recent interview with the Daytona Beach News-Journal, he dismissed them; well, somewhat.

“It’s not worth talking about,” he said. “It’s not something I’m just going to fix. It’s not something I can do and all of a sudden my back will be healed. It’s an ongoing process for me to maintain it.”

I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that if something in Gordon’s back “popped out” during a race, he would not be able to right that ship. But I am completely certain that if it was possible, he would give it a try.

On the all-time win list, Gordon ranks third, behind – again, wait for it – Richard Petty and David Pearson. There’s some rarified air for you.

Woods is 39 years old and will celebrate birthday number 40 in December. My personal opinion is that he will hang up the full-time spikes before many more years pass; when you’ve been on the top of your world, there is nowhere to go but down.

Gordon is 43 and has announced that 2015 will mark his final year of full-time competition in the NASCAR Sprint Series. There is nothing more embarrassing, for both fans and athletes, than trying to hang on too long. I applaud him for knowing when to say when. But what happens next?

Well, just to keep things current, 21-year-old Jordan Speith won his first Masters tournament on April 12. And if you can remember back as far as February, when the smoke had cleared after the 2015 Daytona 500, 24-year-old Joey Logano was the guy celebrating in Victory Lane. These two young’uns are tearin’ it up in their respective games right now, and we will have the opportunity to enjoy watching them for years to come.

Tiger Woods might keep plugging along for a few more seasons, but for me, 2015 is the year of Jeff Gordon. He has consistently been one of NASCAR’s most popular, successful and classy competitors, a real racing rock star and a living legend, and it makes me very proud that he has chosen step down while he is still on top.

What a way to go.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

 

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