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.