Sunday afternoon during the running of the Shelby 427, Jeff Gordon added yet another amazing statistic to his career resume. Joining only six other drivers in NASCAR history, he has led the field for a total of 20,006 laps in Cup races. While the wonderful commentators on FOX made suitable note of the event, for a moment I wondered where the special paint job, etched bottle of champagne and wave of ecstatic fans were. Then I wondered why I wasn’t jumping up and down on my couch. I am, after all, one of those fans who have followed Mr. Gordon’s career since he was an itty-bitty rookie way back in ’93.
For a bitter moment, I came to the realization that what I want, and I’m sure what Gordon really wants, isn’t just another plaque to add to the trophy room. I want another win. And it’s been a mighty long time since JG has parked his No. 24 Dupont Chevy in victory lane during a points race. At least, a long time in Gordon years.
That, I’m afraid, is the crux of the situation. The human brain is a fickle entity. We are always seeking a rush for our pleasure centers. Whether your particular addiction is chocolate, coffee, tenderloin steak, micro-brewery ale or the thrill of watching your hero win another race, the fact is the elation only lasts as long as our memory. In a much too short a time, we search for a repeat of that delightful zing. Opening another Hershey bar is pretty simple. Asking Mr. Gordon to win every week tends to push the boundaries of reality and, unfortunately, the ability to recall the positive experience begins to wane in our minds.
For over a decade, the man who drove a rainbow managed to feed my addiction with rather startling regularity. Not once did I doubt his ability. Even if he didn’t manage to win a Cup that year, he still visited victory lane often enough to reassure me that I was right… he was amazing. IS amazing. See what I’m getting at?
At what point did I start thinking of Gordon’s career in the past tense?
I suspect this phenomenon is something that has happened to other fans that have cheered on their favorite for an eon. The dedication to the individual remains, but the sharp edge of the thrill dulls. Each time a new badge is pinned onto our hero’s uniform, the celebration ages, becomes worn and frayed at the edges.
In the late ’90s, after my driver had arrived on the NASCAR scene, another of the sport’s heroes entered into a time of struggle. While I thrilled to the rush of a first win, a first championship, a second Cup and the establishment of a racing dynasty, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fans watched him appear to flounder.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true, was it? The Intimidator still won races. In fact, those five years provided some of the most incredible finishes that involved the Man in Black in his storied career. Still, his time of winning championship after championship was past. His star didn’t appear to shine as brightly and NASCAR nation was left with the memories of his victories.
Now that the headlines are filled with Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, it seems that Gordon’s star may have entered middle age, as well. Week after week, I watch and wonder where the speed of his youth went. Is it locked under the hood of his car? Or did it manage to escape into the reaches of my mind?
Jeff Gordon will always be the first driver I cheered for, and that will keep his memory alive in my racing heart for years to come. But the fact remains, what makes me tune in to NASCAR every week is watching the fastest car cross the line first.
Will that black and orange-flamed Chevy bring me back to victory lane this year? I really hope so. The points lead and 20,000-laps-led record is very nice and all… but I’m a selfish creature. I want that nail-biting, stomach clenching, yelling and jumping moment one more time. OK, maybe more than once… I did say I’m selfish.