At 4433 Papa Joe Hendrick Boulevard in Charlotte, N.C., the championship banners hang from the rafters of the Team Center building, a cavernous hall where the 550 employees of Hendrick Motorsports frequently gather for luncheons and meetings. As you enter the building, the most recent title reminders are directly above you. There are Jimmie Johnson's five straight Cup banners, commemorating his dominating run from 2006 to '10. There's the 2003 Nationwide banner that Brian Vickers earned. Far down the line, almost obstructed from view by the other banners, is one from 2001--the last time Jeff Gordon drove his No. 24 Chevy to the Cup title.
Yes, the driver once derisively called "Boy Wonder" by Dale Earnhardt Sr. back in the 1990s, hasn't captured a championship in a dozen years. In '01, when he won the fourth title of his career, it was taken as an article of faith in the garage that he would day match -- and likely surpass -- the record of seven career championships shared by Richard Petty and Earnhardt Sr.
After all, between 1995 and '01, Gordon reached Victory Lane a staggering 56 times in 267 starts, which means he took the checkered flag in 21 percent of the Cup races. He was fast on every type of track -- short, intermediate, superspeedway, road course -- and he seemed to possess the perfect combination of brains and brazenness. What's more, he was a marketing dream: articulate, telegenic, and equipped with a ready-made, dimpled smile that flashed whenever he hopped out of his Chevy, which was usually parked in Victory Lane.
Now, 12 years and zero titles later, the question is this: Can Jeff Gordon, at age 41 and in the winter of his racing career, summon the old magic in 2013 and compete for one last title? In the last three seasons he hasn't finished higher than eighth in the points and he's won only six races in his last 185 starts, which translates to reaching Victory Lane only 3.2 percent of the time -- a far cry from those heady times in the late '90s and early 2000s.