Jeff Gordon's 2011 Season a Make-or-Break Year, Professionally and Personally

Dustin ParksAnalyst IDecember 15, 2010

The only place for Gordon to go in 2011 is up, for many reasons.
The only place for Gordon to go in 2011 is up, for many reasons.Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The determining factor of how a NASCAR driver's season is how well he finishes both in the races and in the points.

So, how exactly do we determine how Jeff Gordon fared this last year. Do we call it a success because he made the Chase, or a failure because he didn't win? Do we call it a success because he and wife Ingrid welcomed son Leo, or a failure since both his children didn't see their dad in victory lane?

Arguments can be made either way, but looking ahead at 2011, Gordon's season could be a make-or-break campaign for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

Professionally, he's in the longest slump of his career. The last three years, Gordon has won only one race. He was close many times this year, but something always seemed to prevent him from seeing that checkered flag.

Personally, Gordon's life could not be any better. He's got a wife that supports him every weekend, and now two children that adore him. But the desire to win with them in attendance still burns deeply inside him.

The 2011 season is a season of change for Gordon, both internally and at the track. Since Hendrick Motorsports went to a four-car team in 2002, Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson have shared one side of the shop. Since then, Johnson has finished no worse than fifth in the standings, and has won an unfathomable five consecutive championships.

Next year, Gordon will share the shop with Dale Earnhardt Jr, who now has the services of his former crew chief, Steve Letarte.

The big change for Gordon is the car itself.

Since 1993, Gordon has seen DuPont on the hood. Fans symbolize the No. 24 with that sponsor. The flame paint scheme has been voted best paint job numerous times in NASCAR by the fans.

But, 2011 will see a downsizing in DuPont's sponsorship of his car. His long-time sponsor will be on the car for 14 races, less than half the season.

Replacing DuPont as the primary sponsor is the AARP Foundation's "Drive to End Hunger." For 22 races, the famous black, red and yellow flames will be replaced by a fading red to black scheme with silver accents.

With charity being a major part of Gordon's off-track activities, he has a lot of people relying on him to do well for the new sponsor.

The new idea in sponsorship is revolutionary for Gordon and NASCAR, and puts more pressure on him and his team to win races and make the Chase.

Gordon also now will have a new crew chief, just like two of his other teammates. It will now be Alan Gustafson, who previously was atop the box for Mark Martin, making the calls on pit road. Gustafson nearly won Martin the title in 2009, so Gordon is in good hands.

Overall, Gordon has a lot to prove in 2011, but not all of it is for others.

If anything else, Gordon has to prove to himself that he's still got that winning instinct. Everyone saw glimmers of hope, thinking that his winless streak would finally end. Yet, either something he did or something outside his control kept that from happening.

The frustration was hidden well, but inside the pressure had to be excruciating. It didn't help seeing his teammate win yet another championship, as Johnson completed his own "Drive for Five."

Fans and media alike keep debating as to whether Gordon will win another championship. Maybe he can win one more before hanging up the helmet, or maybe his championship years are behind him. It's a discussion that goes on every year following Homestead and leading up to Daytona.

Gordon's 2011 season is one for rebounding, both on the track and away from it.

No one knows how Gordon will fair when the new season begins, but all eyes will certainly be on the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet.