Passing the torch

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

MIAMI – Again and again, Jeff Gordon kept bringing up the numbers, as if repeating them might change the reality that no matter how good of a season he's had, it probably isn't going to be good enough.

"You know, when you go into the Chase and you have an average finish of about 5.2 and (still) you're 86 points behind going into the final race, there is no doubt that's pretty frustrating," Gordon said, still a bit shell shocked at the thought.

Again and again, Gordon shook his head, offering up a smile and praising Jimmie Johnson, the man he can't seem to catch, can't seem to beat and possibly never will.

"No question, Jimmie's on top," he said.

Again and again, Gordon kept falling back on his personal life, mentioning his wife and new baby as proof that, championship frustration aside, this is still the greatest year of his life.

"When you go through becoming a first-time father, there is nothing that's going to top that," he said, which, while certainly true, has absolutely nothing to do with racing.

Again and again, here was Gordon on Thursday, days before NASCAR's final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, looking and sounding like Superman trying to explain kryptonite; a heavyweight champ trying to come to terms with the truth that this new challenger is just better, and, in the end, there isn't anything he can do about it.

"It's going to be hard for us to top this year," Gordon said. "Six wins, all the top 10s, all the top fives. This has been one heck of a year."

It's just not been a heck of enough of a heck of a year.

If it weren't for Johnson, Gordon would be cruising to his fifth Cup Championship – and his first since 2001 – relishing in his return to the top. He'd be the unquestioned king of the sport, an indomitable champion.

Gordon has put together an incredible season – those six victories, 20 top fives and 29 top 10 finishes in 35 races. Most years he wins the Cup with ease.

But this year, the only way that happens is if Johnson falls apart on Sunday – finishing 18th or lower, something he hasn't done since August.

This year, Johnson has just been better, with 10 victories (including four consecutive over the last month) to seize command of the Chase.

There is simply nothing Gordon can do about it. And it seems to be sinking in that, as good as he's been, Johnson's gotten the better of him.

Gordon didn't just make a concession speech for the season on Thursday. He made one for the foreseeable future, the kind great athletes make when they can no longer do what they used to do.

"I've enjoyed my time," Gordon said in a pass-the-torch kind of admission. "I hope it's not completely over."

At this point, what else can he say? If he can't beat Johnson this year, then when can he?

Johnson, 32, isn't that much younger than Gordon, 36. But this just feels like Johnson's time now. Perhaps it isn't as much about the age as the mileage, and here in just his sixth full season, Johnson is about to win his second consecutive Cup.

Gordon, meanwhile, is finishing his 15th NASCAR season and hasn't won the Cup since before Johnson joined the circuit. If anything, he knows how difficult it is to climb back to the top. He fully appreciates how special this season was, how fleeting these opportunities can be.

Just a month ago, he led the Chase by 68 points. Then Johnson hit another gear and Gordon couldn't keep up. That's what makes this even more frustrating.

"There is no doubt that one of the reasons why I think this championship was so important to me this year is because as you do get older, you look at your opportunities as becoming slimmer and slimmer," Gordon said.

If only Gordon could blame it on something other than himself, like the cars he drives. But he can't, because both teams are owned by Hendrick Motorsports, meaning Gordon has access to every bit of data, every adjustment, every strategy Johnson is employing, making this about as level a playing field imaginable.

So there is no blaming anyone, no complaining that the other guy has some huge advantage. This, in a lot of ways, is just about the driver.

"I know the equipment, I know the people, I know the set-up, I know everything," Gordon admitted.

"He can flat out drive."

So again and again, Gordon threw up his hands. His best season since he was the hot shot who couldn't stop winning Cup titles will in all likelihood produce a second-place finish. One of his best friends is going to beat him. And while he's happy for Johnson, the competitor in him isn't very excited about facing a reality he's not sure he can alter.

"To have a year like this at this point in my career and not be able to get it done, there is no doubt in the back of your mind there is some frustration and thoughts about how many of these opportunities are going to come our way," he said.

"How many more years like this?"

Again and again, he kept wondering.

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