MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jeff Gordon insists he isn't necessarily in any rush to retire. And he didn't even raise the topic, he asserts. But the 42-year-old did actually say before the Daytona 500 that he would likely be inclined to conclude his 23-year Sprint Cup career if he were to capture a fifth championship this season.
That he concedes. Sort of.
"I was joking seriously," he grinned, impishly.
"Listen, I can't think of a better way to want to end the season, winning a championship. And I can't think of a better way of going out than being on top," he said on Friday at Martinsville Speedway. "At the time, all I was thinking about when they [the media] asked that question was winning a championship. I wasn't thinking, 'Well, I can't wait to stop racing.' If I won a championship, that would be the ultimate way. So somebody poses that question to me, I'm not sure how many more years I have anyway, so ... sounds good to me.
"I haven't won a championship in a long time. I'd be happy with that."
Martinsville Speedway could factor heavily into the calculus for Gordon, who won his most recent title in 2001. An eight-time winner at the .526-mile track -- tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the active lead -- Gordon could virtually assure qualification for that possible last Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory on Sunday. He still knows his way around the place, having passed Matt Kenseth with 21 laps left last fall to claim his only victory of the season and end a 32-event winless streak.
Gordon had been installed into the 2013 Chase by decree of NASCAR chairman Brian France in September after it was determined his playoffs hopes were dashed by a race-manipulation scheme at Richmond that incurred massive sanctions for Michael Waltrip Racing. The unapologetic Gordon's controversial inclusion as a 13-seed was validated by the Martinsville win and rush to sixth in the final standings, his highest since finishing third in 2009.
Another victory on Sunday also would resonate strongly with Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports. A legacy of performance and pain at the rural Virginia track assures that. This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of Geoff Bodine's claiming the team's first Sprint Cup win here, and this fall will be a decade since a team plane traveling on race day crashed, killing all 10 aboard, including team owner Rick Hendrick's son, brother and two nieces.
Gordon and Johnson felt the urgency to deliver Hendrick the organization's 200th win here in 2012, but both were taken out while contesting the victory by a late wreck caused by Clint Bowyer. Such animosity festered thereafter that Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer later in the season at Phoenix International Raceway, sparking a brawl between the Gordon and Bowyer crews.
"For Rick, this was the first place he ever won, and it was like a game-changer for Hendrick Motorsports," Gordon said of a team that has claimed 11 Cup championships. "They were possibly not going to continue on had that win not happened. So Martinsville had significance there, and then obviously a lot of wins over the years between Jimmie and myself and other drivers Rick's had, celebrating 30 years coming here, and then also the tragedy -- there's a lot that is weighing on trying to put a really special weekend together to commemorate everything Rick has gone through and has to celebrate.
"It's like 200 wins. I wanted to be able to do that for him and the organization and I want to do that this week." Gordon enters Sunday third in the standings, but coming off a frustrating 13th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway. He led before a late caution prompted by a Bowyer tire failure cued a pit sequence that mired him in the field.
Gordon had begun the season with two top-5s and four top-10s, making the possibility of a season-ending career decision seem like more of a realistic possibility.
A man with disparate, non-racing interests, Gordon seemingly has an endless supply of things to occupy his time once he retires, including a wife and two young children and an interest in television that has allow him to appear on "Saturday Night Live," morning chat shows and viral videos terrifying reporters.
"That can go for you or against, because some people can take that as, 'Well, you're not focused, you're not as passionate about it,'" Gordon said of broad interests. "But nothing drives me more when it comes to what I work the hardest at, what I eat, sleep and breathe, other than my family, and that's driving this car. Not the business of racing. There were times along the way when I focused way more on the business and I was still winning championships. I don't focus near as much on that as I used to. I spend way more time debriefing with the team, physical fitness, testing, than I ever have, but I want to be a good dad and a good husband, too."
Gordon certainly has choices. He took an equity stake in Hendrick Motorsports in a 2001 contract extension and is listed as the owner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.
"It's a lot to think about," Gordon said. "Fortunately, I've been with Rick for a lot of years, where I have invested in dealerships. I have my investment in Hendrick I've never really had done a whole lot with. It was a contract I did a long time ago. I get the books, I get the numbers, but I don't go to all those meetings.
"It's not something I put a lot of focus and attention on currently because I want my focus to be on driving. But when I'm not driving, I love the business of the racing. I've been competitive, and Rick has taught me so much. I'd love to be more involved in that. If an opportunity came, TV, I feel very passionate about racing, I love to talk about racing and I feel I'm fairly knowledgeable about it, but I don't know if that's in my future or not."
Gordon isn't seeking an escape hatch, he said. He apparently just has desire to depart with some flair.
"The difference is I am very content because I have accomplished so much, so if I don't ever win another race or another championship, I am going to look back on my career and stats and be overwhelmed, really, because it's been amazing," he said. "I didn't expect it to be this good. But that sometimes can be misconstrued as, 'Well, you don't really care as much as one of these other guys about getting the next one.' That's not necessarily true."
And Gordon understands the gluttonous constitution of the race car driver. Although a championship to punctuate an unexpectedly fruitful career would be storybook stuff, it might just leave him wanting more.
So he reserves the right to take it all back, whatever he said or anyone thinks he said.
"Of course. You can always change," he smiled. "If that happened, there's a very good possibility I would live up to it [and retire].
"... And there's a possibility I wouldn't."