CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Darrell Waltrip knows the thoughts that go through a champion driver’s mind when deciding on retirement. That’s partly the reason he had the reaction he did when he heard the news that Jeff Gordon plans to make 2015 his last full time season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
“I was shocked,” Waltrip said.
Perhaps better than any other driver not named Jimmie Johnson, Waltrip understands the success and career that Gordon has had. They are third and tied for fourth respectively on NASCAR’s career wins list. Between them, they have won seven Cup Series titles.
But whereas Gordon is leaving at the top of his game and going out on his own terms, Waltrip’s situation 15 years ago was a bit different.
“I couldn’t get a good ride,” Waltrip explained about his departure from full time racing back in 2000. “I didn’t have a winning car. Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) pulled me aside and said ‘When are you gonna quit?’ I said ‘I don’t want to quit, I still like driving the car’. He said “But you’re not competitive.'”
“I don’t know how Jeff Gordon can walk away from what he has right now.”
Last year was arguably one of Gordon’s best in recent memory. He won four races, had 23 top 10 finishes, made the Chase and was one of only two drivers to finish every race. He also has two big milestones within his career grasp.
“I thought he wanted to win 100 races,” Waltrip said (Gordon is currently at 92 career wins). “That’s what I would have done. I know he wants to win another championship. Maybe he thinks he can do all that in one year.”
There are other factors presumably weighing in Gordon’s decision. Rick Hendrick racing has Chase Elliott, fresh off a championship in the Xfinity (Nationwide) Series last year who they would like to see in the Cup series soon. He is the likely heir apparent for Gordon’s ride next season.
Gordon’s children are ages seven and four, another factor that Waltrip wished he had considered more during his driving career.
“This sport takes a lot of time, and that takes you away from your kids. I know (Jeff) loves those kids,” Waltrip said. “I remember when I had my two girls and they were growing up, I looked at them and said ‘They were two last year, now they’re six. The next thing I know, they were 10. The next thing I know, they were grown.’ And I’m still out here putzing around in a race car. I think Jeff takes that into consideration.”
Gordon will not be leaving the sport completely. He is still part-owner of teammate Jimmie Johnson’s team with Hendrick. And he has already announced this year he will be a part-time analyst for Fox’s coverage of the Xfinity series.
“He (Gordon) has an incredible amount of talent,” Waltrip said. “He can do a lot of things. He’s surrounded by great people. I think a lot of things came together for him to decide this would be his last year.”