It’s been 12 years since Jeff Gordon made his first start at Texas Motor Speedway in the spring of 1997. I was only 16… but I remember every bit of it. Gordon was nearing the peak of his career then, leading 69 laps in the speedway’s Cup debut. Comfortably in the top five, 25-year-old Gordon remained in contention until contact between Ernie Irvan and Greg Sacks made him an innocent victim of a wreck not of his making. The No. 24 car slammed into both cars in front of him, destroying the front end of his DuPont Chevrolet and turning his day into a pile of mush.
The crowd cheered.
Fast forward to 2009. 16 starts and several ugly DNFs later, Gordon finally took a Texas-sized monkey and threw it off his back, charging from third to first on his final pit stop and holding off now three-time championship teammate Jimmie Johnson for his first career victory at the track. In the process, Gordon ended a 47-race winless streak – but cemented his hold atop the Sprint Cup standings in what’s become a 162-point runaway after just six events.
The crowd cheered.
That alone should give a clear indication of how perception of Gordon has changed these last few seasons. Of course, Gordon himself doesn’t want to believe it; he laughed at a question in his post-race press conference that suggested fans of other drivers had actually started rooting for him to end his drought.
“I can’t say I ever saw that,” he said with a grin.
But the rest of us did.
With his victory Sunday, Gordon continues to put the finishing touches on what will be one of the most decorated stock car careers of all time. With his win at Texas, there’s just one track left on the current schedule where Gordon remains shut out of victory lane (Homestead) – it’s one of several marks he’s set that will take years to be broken in NASCAR’s modern era. With just three more victories – a mark likely attainable this season – he’ll move to third on the all-time list behind only David Pearson and Richard Petty, both certain to be first-ballot Hall of Famers when the sport ushers in its national museum in 2010. Without question, Gordon will one day join them in Charlotte; he’s the most successful driver of the late 1990s, and the arguments will carry on long into the night as to whether he’s the most successful of the modern era altogether.
Despite all these records, though, the booing continued to follow Gordon wherever he went up and through the past few years. Losing races and championships to new teammate Johnson? The fans just jeered them both. Passing Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the all-time victory list? They greeted him by throwing beer cans while celebrating. And losing two championships under the Chase he’d have coasted to under the old system? They were met by complete indifference from fans who spent years wasting their breath on hoping he’d blow an engine.
“When somebody dominates, you want to see them get beaten,” Gordon theorized without a hint of frustration about that shaky past Sunday night. “And when somebody is a winner, or are good at what they do, you want to see them struggle a little bit – but you also like to see them do good when they struggle. I don’t think that’s been any different in our case.”
“I’m sure there’s probably some people out there that maybe weren’t big Gordon fans that saw us struggle enough and said, hey, it would be good to see them win – but I also know there’s some that are just loving it that we were never winning.”
Yet sometime over these last 47 races, the fans upset over Gordon’s lack of success have far outshined a shrinking minority of those who relished it. Indeed, without anyone ever realizing what was happening Gordon’s transition to beloved elder statesman of the sport has come to pass. This transition is nothing new; notables such as Darrell Waltrip and Earnhardt experienced the same thing late in their careers. In Waltrip’s case, it was being spun out by Rusty Wallace in 1989’s Winston that turned him from villain to victim; for Earnhardt, it was his win in the 1998 Daytona 500 which proved that the man of steel was also the most well-respected man in the Cup Series garage.
Which event turned the tide of public opinion for Gordon? I don’t think it’s one particular moment so much as a handful of on and off-track events. For the first time during this drought, Gordon became a father, sharing his love for his daughter Ella and wife Ingrid publicly more often than not. He was painfully the bridesmaid but never the bride, finishing second in the ’07 title Chase to Johnson and then finishing runner-up four times in Cup races over the past year-and-a-half. And through it all, fans began to realize that at 37, “beginning of the end” could be a phrase much closer to reality than anyone might have ever expected.
“Never looked at it that way,” said Gordon when questioned about his slump – and how one too many critics predicted his career’s imminent demise. “The media and I have a fantastic relationship, have for many years. And it’s because I have respect for their job. They have to tell a story with as much facts as they have presented to them – and the facts were the facts.”
“We just… we had opportunities. We didn’t win, sometimes it was my fault. Sometimes there were other circumstances. It’s our job as a team to come together and prove that wrong for ourselves, not for anybody else.”
But in the process of doing it, don’t believe for a second Gordon’s own racing mortality failed to cross his mind, a fact not lost on the millions of fans who follow this sport religiously on a weekly basis. And as his jovial session with reporters continued well into the night at TMS, a few of those innermost fears we already knew actually began to creep out.
“It made you question how bad do you really want it,” he said of the past 18 months. “How hard are you willing to work to get back to victory lane, and how hard are you willing to drive, what’s your physical condition, where are you at mentally? I realized through last year that I didn’t want to just be somebody out there riding around. I didn’t want to be somebody that never won again. And I don’t know how many more years I do have left.”
Somewhere along that line of thinking, Gordon became more determined. He increased his offseason workout regimen, restricted at-the-track visiting of his wife and daughter to Sundays and held several offseason chats with crew chief Steve Letarte about what he could do as a driver to make things better. And as Gordon entered 2009 with a renewed sense of focus, the fans entered the year with a sense of nostalgia – looking to see if, indeed, the end was close at hand.
“I could give this team 100% of my focus as well as any time they need to test or do anything that I’m there 100%,” Gordon explained of his recent change in attitude. “I wanted to make sure there were no excuses, just like Steve says – no excuses. And so I’m giving these guys everything that I’ve got and we’re just we’re doing things a little different, and it’s all paying off.”
In the process, Gordon’s become a visible force of positive energy in a series desperate for someone to carry it on its mantle and save it from short-term decline. And as Gordon adjusts to wearing that title of beloved elder statesman, he’ll realize it also comes with a greater sense of power. Comments that are made carry more weight, with both your successful history and the excitement of the fanbase now standing behind them. Only time will tell whether Gordon will use his newfound popularity late in the game – combined with his presence on top of the sport – to push for changes in a new car that’s constantly fallen under criticism from all aspects of the garage. Or for a points system and a style of racing that’s become more bland in recent years.
But today wasn’t exactly the day to bring about change… today was a day to simply recognize that change had finally come for a man that once spent years being NASCAR’s No. 1 public enemy. Instead, there’s now a chance to allow a veteran of 16-plus years to remember what it’s like to be young all over again.
“It was the coolest,” Gordon said of his first trip to victory lane at Texas. “I’m telling you, it’s like winning for the very first time. All those emotions and excitement… I did a heck of a good burnout, I thought. So I was proud of that. And I did it so good I blew the rear tires off the car, at least one of them, on the back straightaway. I didn’t want those fans back there to miss out on the burnout.”
And now that most fans have come around on both Gordon and his 16-year career, they’ll get a chance to appreciate a lifetime of accomplishments just before it would have been too late.