Legends. Icons. Some athletes simply are the best, at least until Father Time is done with them. Few seem able to be able to step away while there might still be some gas in the tank. I get that. I mean, why quit before the curtain needs to fall?
Jeff Gordon appears to be one who is prepared to take his final bow while he is not just a legend in his sport, but also a contender. At the age of 43, Gordon has four championships to his credit, 92 victories and an amazing 320 Top Fives in 761 starts. Forty-Two percent of the time, Gordon has mattered in races run since finishing fifth in the 1993 Daytona 500. In 22 seasons to date, he has finished the year no worse than 14th and that was in 1993.
There are other legends in other sports who have provided incredible statistics. Wayne Gretzky once scored 92 goals in a National Hockey League season and 930 in his career when you include the 46 from his lone World Hockey Association campaign. The Great One had only nine in his final season as a 38 year old. Even the man Gretzky considers the best of the best, Gordie Howe, who scored 15 in his final season, and he was 52 years old.
The Great One was preceeded by simply The Greatest. As Cassius Clay, the boxer the world came to know as Muhammad Ali, was an Olympic gold medalist in 1960. In his prime, he was a heavyweight who fought with the speed of a middleweight. He won the title in 1964 in a shocking win over Sonny Liston. After a three year ban and four more years that included losses to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, he shocked the world again by regaining the crown from George Foreman. After another epic battle with Frazier, he lost then regained the title in 1978 against Leon Spinks. He retired, but came back for two ill-fated bouts, being stopped by Larry Holmes in 1980 and losing in 10 rounds to Trevor Berbick a year later, at the age of 39, a phantom of his former self.
Babe Ruth is, was, and will forever be the face of baseball. A seven time World Series winner. A dozen home run titles, including 60 in 1927. When he hit more than 50 homers in both 1921 and 1922, his closest rival had hit 35 fewer. He hit 714 in his career, still ranked third best all-time. Ruth won a batting title, hit .342 in his career, and in 1916 even had the best ERA amongst all American League pitchers. That year he went 14 innings to win a World Series game on the mound. In his final season, at the age of 40, the Bambino lasted just 28 games. He hit six home runs (swatting 3 of them six days before he retired) and batting a mere .181.
Two hundred wins, 27 of them coming in the 1967 season alone. Seven NASCAR titles. An astounding 25 seasons ranked amongst the Top Ten. There is a reason Richard Petty is the King. By the time he was done, the tank was dry. Over his last five seasons, he was winless and failed to crack the Top Twenty each of those seasons. By the time his final season came around, at the age of 55, a trio of 15th place finishes were his best on the year. Petty’s final win was already eight seasons behind him.
Most retire when the tank is empty, but not all. Ken Dryden was 31 when the Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender called it quits, winning top goaltending honors in five of his seven seasons. Dryden ended his career as a Stanley Cup champion, his sixth, to become a lawyer, author, and public servant.
Rocky Marciano was undefeated in 49 fights, 43 won by knockout, including the final seven that saw him leave the ring as World Heavyweight Champion. Marciano was thrice named by Ring magazine as fighter of the year, with his 1952 fight with Jersey Joe Walcott judged the best knockout ever. The Rock was just 32 when he hung them up.
Sandy Koufax played through pain, winning three Cy Young Awards, including one for his final season. In 11 seasons with the Dodgers, he won 165 games for a 65 percent winning percentage, striking out 9.3 batters for every nine innings played. One season he won both the Cy Young and was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. The arthritis that caused his early departure failed to stop him winning 27 games in his final turn. Koufax retired at the age of 30, not because he could no longer pitch but rather to avoid the threat of a permanent disability.
Which brings us back to Jeff Gordon. He will be 44 when he retires at the end of the 2015 season. His back hurts, and time will tell how much he has left in the tank, but odds are he will still be among the best on the track each week. Four wins in 2014 bodes well. Over the past four years, in his last 108 races, he has won 10, to go with 76 Top Tens. Gordon has been a Top Ten driver at the end of every season of his career, with the exceptions of 1993 (14th) and 2005 (11th), rating sixth best the past two.
It will be sad to see one of the greats leave his seat early. The good news is that he leaves on his terms, still at the top of his game. The great news is that a wife, daughter, and son get to see him a whole lot more and his fans have memorabilia that will never go out of style. Oh, yes, we also get to have one more season watching one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers in action as the drive for five remains alive.