Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday April 26, 2007
It gave me goosebumps. That was the first thought I had after witnessing one of the classiest tributes race fans have been treated to in some time. When Jeff Gordon tied Dale Earnhardt's career win total at 76 Saturday night at Phoenix, he took in hand a simple black flag with Earnhardt's number three on it in tribute to the man who was not only a racing legend, but a friend and mentor. It was a quiet, fitting tribute and a special moment in NASCAR's history books.
Like Jeff Gordon or hate him, his place among the greatest drivers in NASCAR is secure. But he remembered one of the people in the sport who had helped him become one of the best. To say that the display was anything less than the utmost respect is completely ignorant of the innermost history of NASCAR racing. Dale Earnhardt respected Jeff Gordon. And because he respected him, he goaded and pushed him, on and off the track, to be the best he could be-and Gordon excelled. He won so quickly and so often that many fans turned against him-especially Earnhardt's fans, who no doubt felt put out by the young upstart infringing on their driver's territory, first in Victory Lane, and soon at the head table at the Waldorf. The four-time Cup champ learned to wow his sponsors and in time became a successful car co-owner in the Nextel Cup Series as well, proving his insight when he convinced Rick Hendrick to take a chance on a relatively unknown young driver-and within five years Jimmie Johnson had his own Cup title. And Dale Earnhardt may have minded taking a few fewer checkered flags at Gordon's expense, but his respect for the young phenom made it okay.
But Jeff Gordon knows his place in NASCAR history, and he remembered who helped him early on when he reached that man's milestone. While Dale Earnhardt, who passed away in 2001, could not be the first person in Victory Lane when Gordon reached his mark, his son could-and was. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at Gordon's side before the night's winner could even climb from his racecar. He gave Gordon a grinning congratulations and a patented Earnhardt grin before anyone else could get close enough. His gesture showed the same kind of class that Jeff Gordon had just displayed by carrying the flag of a hero, and the same kind of class that his father would no doubt have shown Gordon himself. Although it can be argued that had the senior Earnhardt survived to retire on his own terms, Gordon would still be chasing him, Gordon, at only 35 years old, would have caught him someday. And somehow I don't think Dale would have minded nearly as much as he might have let on.
The thing about NASCAR history is that it is fluid. While Earnhardt's death may have made Gordon's catch-up premature, it would have happened. Just like someday, someone will eclipse Gordon on the list. It could be one of the young, talented drivers that Gordon himself helped pave the way for, entering the sport in an era where drivers in their very early twenties were a rarity rather than the norm. It could be someone who hasn't even seen seat time in the upper echelons yet. But someday, somewhere, it will more than likely happen.
There are a few racing right now who have a shot at someday catching Gordon. Young drivers like Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have time as well as superior equipment on their side. At the top of the list may well be the virtually unknown driver that Gordon himself brought into the Cup ranks in late 2001. Jimmie Johnson stormed to three wins his rookie year, 2002, and has equaled or bettered that total every year since, totaling 26 victories to date in just over five years in the circuit-more wins than anyone else-including Gordon and two-time champion Tony Stewart in that time. Johnson has team chemistry reminiscent of Gordon's early days with Ray Evernham and the Rainbow Warriors. In fact, Johnson's crew chief was one of those crewmen in the heyday of the 24 team. At a clip of 23 wins every five years, Johnson would have 69 wins at the age of 41. A few more years or a few more wins in his prime would certainly put Johnson within shouting distance of whatever Gordon's total proves to be.
Should Johnson be the one to catch Gordon, I wouldn't be surprised to see a 24 flag paraded around the track. In fact, any of today's young drivers who have benefited from Gordon's expertise could well be found toting that flag around the track. And it would be a fitting tribute to a champion whose influence spread much further than one team or one organization. Sound familiar? It should, because Jeff Gordon did just that Saturday night, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. recognized with the class of his father what Gordon had done in victory, tribute, and history. Race fans should do nothing less, and when it happens again, they should always remember those who came before.
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