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Holding A Pretty Wheel: In the Twilight of His Career, Jeff Gordon Still On Top

For just a few moments at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, the years were peeled away. For just a few moments, the driver was young again; everyone in attendance felt it. The spirit was beautiful again, because it was what they all remembered: rife with possibility, a hero’s game, a well-fought battle where the brash young warrior cast aside all comers to stand alone at the top of the mountain.

The moment was fleeting. But during his victory celebration after winning the Goody’s Headache Relief Shots 500, Jeff Gordon was the 22-year-old kid winning his first race all over again. He didn’t know at the time — none of us knew at the time — that he was standing on the brink of greatness, and in that moment, it didn’t matter. He was just a kid, having fun, enjoying the moment.

And on Sunday, Gordon acted like that kid as he celebrated in Victory Lane, this time for the 93rd time in his legendary career. Gordon jumped into the arms of his crew and shouted, “We’re going to Homestead!” as though he’d never competed for a title before, let alone won four of them. The driver, now 44, with grey playing at his temples, soaked in the moment, clearly emotional, clearly thankful for what the sport has given him.

And the fans responded in kind, savoring the moment equally, knowing that this could well be the last time they see Gordon win a race in person. They stood, and cheered, and stayed. Long after the engines had quieted, an enormous number of them were still in the stands, rooted to the spot, not wanting the moment to end. Never mind that once upon a time, Gordon was public enemy No. 1 to many fans, who let their feelings be known in loud and often spectacular fashion. On this night, they had only respect for the driver who stands alone as the best of his era — and if NASCAR has a Richard Petty Era, or a Dale Earnhardt Era, then certainly much of the last 23 years is the Jeff Gordon Era.

Nobody else comes close.

Not even Tony Stewart, a multi-time champion who can drive anything with wheels on it, can match Gordon’s NASCAR career. Not even Jimmie Johnson, who Gordon hand-picked as his teammate and who has given Gordon, his car owner of record, six titles and more than 70 wins in 14 seasons, has had the impact on the sport that Gordon has.

Gordon came along at a time that was ripe for the picking for a talented young driver. The sport’s biggest star, Earnhardt, was aging, along with the likes of Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip. Gordon was a different breed from the other stars of the day: young, well-spoken, groomed in a sprint car on dirt. The sport lacked a young superstar in the wake of the death of Davey Allison.

And here came Gordon, just as the sun was setting on the career of Petty and getting low in the sky for a handful of others.  Just 21, small, slight and with a cheesy mustache that made him look like a high-school kid, Gordon spent the first months of his career wrecking a lot. Until he didn’t. Until he started winning instead.

Oh, how the old-school fans hated Gordon, who spoke as smoothly as he drove and seemed unstoppable in the mid-to-late 1990s. It seemed as though it would be a matter of when — not if — Gordon won that elusive seventh title, perhaps eclipsed Petty and Earnhardt with an eighth. And while many fans loved that, an equal number hated the very idea.

And all the while, Gordon went on winning. When Gordon won his fourth title at just 30 years of age, he already had more than 50 wins. There was speculation that he’d easily become the only driver to race entirely in the sport’s modern era to reach 100 wins. He’ll fall just short, but is the winningest driver ever to race his entire career since the sport rocketed into that era in 1972. He’ll still fall third on the all-time list, with only Petty and David Pearson above him. Allison and Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and Earnhardt and all the rest fall behind.

The four titles, well, there could have been more. Gordon has earned the most points in a season seven times in total. Three of those times were under a system where earning the most points no longer made a champion, but Gordon soldiered on.

He announced his retirement in January, in the wake of one of his best seasons in more than half a decade. Age catches even the seemingly ageless, and chronic back problems were catching up with Gordon, making driving a racecar a painful endeavor. He’s got a family now, kids he’d like to spend more time with. It still seemed too soon.

But Gordon, despite an uncharacteristically slow start to the season, isn’t going to go out like some of the sport’s other great drivers, hanging on too long, looking for just one more title, one more win, one more day in the sun. He’s going instead on his own terms, with the sun still high in the sky.

The sun was sinking below the horizon as Gordon took the checkered flag at Martinsville Sunday. His career, too, is in its twilight. Gordon took sole possession of the most wins mark for active drivers at Martinsville Speedway with his ninth win, a distinction he’ll hold for just a couple more weeks before handing it over to Johnson. Gordon won at almost every track he raced at, taking on Hall of Famers and journeymen on the way.

Sunday may well be the last time Gordon waves the checkered flag in celebration. He knew that, and he didn’t want the celebration to end. The fans knew as well, and they kept the celebration going for as long as they could, much longer than they have for any other race win this season or in recent memory.

Gordon’s swan song ends, regardless of the title outcome, on a flawless high note. He’s going out on his terms, at the top of his game. The same way he took home those 93 wins and four titles. The same way he made legions of fans love him and legions more hate him. As the sun sets, they all respect him. They have seen greatness, and they know that. They celebrate it, savor it. When the sun goes down, they’ll look back on Gordon’s career and say, “I saw one of the best there ever was. I saw Jeff Gordon race.”

That will be Jeff Gordon’s legacy.

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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11 thoughts on “Holding A Pretty Wheel: In the Twilight of His Career, Jeff Gordon Still On Top”

  1. The picture above, standing on the door of the car with his arms stretched out in (most likely) his final win with two feeble spotlights trying to cut through the darkness will be the photo that becomes one that is etched in the memory of anyone that watched that race. An iconic photo that encapsulates a 23 year career. And Martinsville of all places, how fitting with, as you pointed out, him being the last link from the Petty era to the current era.

    If you were a fan, all good things must pass and what a ride it was. If you weren’t a fan then you can rejoice because in three weeks you won’t ever have to root against him again and you will have to find someone else to hater. I’m sure you won’t have any problem.

    • This is the best article I have ever read about Jeff Gordon. I will miss him. To me, he’s the best that ever raced.

    • Well said, BillB.

      I enjoyed the column, Amy.

      Ken, they can put someone else in the 24 car but he still won’t be Jeff Gordon. I don’t plan to cheer for another driver. IMO they are all useless gits

      • Gina,
        I think Ken meant the fans that despised Gordon already have a replacement and that replacement is Joey Logano.

        • ah, you are probably right, BillB. All these years I figured the replacement was one of the Busch brothers but I believe you are right about it being Logano instead.

          I’m happy that I will no longer care enough about any driver to notice.

  2. While i was never a Gordon fan, I will certainly miss hs presence on the track.

    And thank you, Amy, for a column about something other than Kenseth and Logano.

    • P.S…. I was at Charlotte when Jeff won his first race. He and his wife at the time actually walked out into the infield and talked to some race fans. Nobody does that now.

  3. Great article, It sums up the feelings I had in the Grandstands last Sunday at Martinsville. Jeff Gordon took someone who thought NASCAR was just a bunch of hillbillies going around in circles and made him a life long NASCAR fan. The diecast cars and racing memorabilia now far outnumber the New York Yankee/Cowboys stuff in my house. Despite whatever issues the sport has now, I still enjoy it far more than the NFL or MLB now. Attending a NASCAR race v. an MLB game or NFL game is a vastly different experience in terms of value and being fan friendly. For what I paid for all my Martinsville tickets last week, it wouldn’t have gotten me out of nosebleed land at Yankee Stadium or Cowboys Stadium.

  4. Great piece Amy. I had lost interest in NASCAR over recent years, but I have been following it this season because of it being the swan song for one of the all-time greats.

    Jeff Gordon is the Babe Ruth, the Gordie Howe, the Wilt Chamberlain of NASCAR. He is the superstar that took a sport whose events weren’t even all telecast live and made it a national, enormously popular mainstream sport. Ironically, or maybe not ironically at all, an ill-conceived playoff system that has denied recognition to him for three times outscoring every other driver has been a huge reason for this sport’s continuing wane of popularity.

    There can always be arguments over who the greatest NASCAR driver was. Petty and Earnhardt were great, but they also raced in eras where far fewer drivers were in contention to win every week. Jimmie Johnson is a six-time champ, so of course he should be considered, but he has done all that with the same crew chief. Gordon has scored the most points in a season with four different crew chiefs.

    I have seen some impressive feats from him on the track. I watched him come back from three laps down to win at Martinsville…using the lucky dog just once. His 2005 500 win was as impressive a display of plate racing that I’ve seen. And the result didn’t reflect it, but he darn near cut through an entire field at Watkins Glen in 2003.

    He’s also been a great ambassador to the sport…his work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to me has been particularly impressive. To make over 200 visits with sick kids is quite an achievement given a racecar driver’s schedule.

    I was not a NASCAR fan when Jeff Gordon arrived on the scene. When I became a fan I decided he would be my driver. So I’ve never followed NASCAR without Jeff Gordon racing every week, and it’s going to be an adjustment.

    He’s gonna be missed. Maybe more than people realize.

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