Jeff Gordon is winning again.
That makes the Rainbow Coalition happy, and the second-largest bloc of NASCAR fans behind Junior Nation still wields impressive clout on a nationwide basis. It’ll be good for apparel sales and excitement, and the fact that Super G has put himself in good position for a Chase wild-card is even more reason to ring the bell (and the cash register!).
But for Gordon, it might be the big finish the now-40-year-old father of two was looking for as his career begins its inevitable wind toward the conclusion.
I’m not saying he’s going to ride off into the sunset just yet. He won’t. Baby (or babies, in his case) still needs a new pair of shoes from time to time, and he isn’t exactly built to be one of the idle rich just yet.
And there’s that pesky legacy thing to be concerned about as well.
Yes, he’s won four titles, and that’s more than anyone save The King, Dale Earnhardt and his own protégé, Jimmie Johnson. Yes, he’s won 84 races, which ties him for third place all-time in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history. Yeah, he revolutionized the sport and took it from the Intimidator Era to the Rainbow Warrior Era, which was the bridge to whatever we’re going to call the Jimmie Johnson era.
But he’s not winning races like he used to. That could be more about the competition level ramping up than him slowing down, but does it really matter in the long run when someone else is in Victory Lane?
No matter what, No. 24 is likely a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer, and it’s something he’s thought about.
“You know how I want to be remembered?,” he said Sunday. “I want to make it to that speech. I’ve been to two Hall of Fame events. I want to be on that stage mixing it up with the other people when that day comes, and hopefully it does, and I want to be able to express it then because I think I’ll have had the moment and the time and the appreciation to truly embrace it and understand what it means.
“I’m just not there yet. I’m just not in that frame of mind to put it in perspective. It would be way too premature to talk about it. There’s no doubt I’m blown away with what I’ve accomplished. Just like going through those down years, I appreciate the wins a whole lot more. I think I have to be able to step away from the sport and look at it for a period of time and really go back through those memories.”
That’s a sound and reasoned approach, from a driver who has assumed Earnhardt’s mantle as The Voice in the garage. But, there’s still The Kid that Knocked Earnhardt Off his Pedestal poking around in there somewhere. As well, there’s the dad of two who wants to spend time with his wife and kids somewhere besides the race track.
On the way to the SPEED Channel Victory Lane set, someone reminded him he had tied Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for third behind Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson in terms of victories. That’s strong, no matter which way you look at it
“Eighty-four wins…I can think of about 25 of them right now in my head, but that’s about it,” Gordon said. “But there’s a lot more than that. I’d like to go and remember those moments, people I’ve become friends with. Just incredible memories that have made this crew what it is for me. Then I want to be able to talk about it. I’m just not ready to do that right now.”
What he is thinking about, you can be sure, is making the Chase again and competing for a fifth title. He’s always been as competitive as the next guy, and sometimes more than most, and it HAS to rankle that Johnson has one more title than he does. Especially since when Gordon won his first one in 1995, Johnson was still in middle school.
Over the past couple of seasons, Gordon has been in position to win races, only to have something happen to mess it up. Martinsville last year, he led with less than 10 laps to go and lost out to Denny Hamlin. Texas, he got beat on a restart and faded.
On Sunday, he closed the deal.
“It was so amazing because I was so excited about the hard work that Alan [crew chief Alan Gustafson] and his guys have been putting into our Speedway program, whatever we call these types of racetracks, intermediates, because we struggled on ’em,” he said. “I’m so excited to get that win and see what we’ve been working on, the talk we had in our team meeting prior to today’s race about just putting it all together. We’ve had fast racecars at times, then the strategy didn’t fall our way or the cautions don’t fall our way or we didn’t have the fastest race car.
“So today to see it all come together, to have a fast race car, great pit stops, calling the race right, good restarts, those types of things, I was so caught up in that, I was so excited, plus I have my family here to celebrate it with…”
The Chase is looming, as there are now 12 races left to make the “post-season.” Gordon isn’t in the top 10, so he’s going to have to bank on being one of the wild-cards, or drivers in the top 20 in points with victories.
Gordon now has two, with his triumph earlier at Phoenix, and that has him sitting pretty.
Not that you can tell by his reaction.
“…There’s too many good guys to me inside the top 20 in points that can win a couple races here,” he said. “Hamlin, Biffle, several others. I don’t know who is in the top 10 right now after the points, how they shook out today, and who’s not, but our focus has to be the same thing all the time, and that’s just trying to win races. If you can’t win the race, get the absolute best finish you can to try to lock ourselves in.
“I’m just more excited about the momentum that’s coming for us and getting into that stride at this point in the season. The conversations that Alan and I have had prior to the season, as the season has unfolded here, and starting to see those conversations come to fruition, I’m just excited about that because the things that we’ve talked about and believe in with one another are starting to come true.”
It wasn’t always that way this season. Gordon went through a stretch earlier where he and Gustafson were completely out to lunch, running in the mid-teens and not closing well.
“You definitely question that at times,” he said. “You’re like, ‘OK, are we just being cheerleaders here to try to keep ourselves from getting down or are we really serious about it?’ Days like today show how serious we are about those things.”
Gordon feels that the wheels are starting to turn at the right time, and that’s a good thing.
“I think this point in the season, to get our program turned around as quickly as we have, because of the effort that Alan and his group of guys, those engineers have done, to get us better on these types of racetracks, the timing couldn’t be better. Hopefully we can keep that going.”
At least until it’s time to be on the stage at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, anyway.
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