Stop me if you’ve heard this one already: Jeff Gordon‘s final start is this weekend.
It’s kind of a questionable milestone at this point, because it’s merely his final scheduled start. Remember, Gordon, a four-time champion in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, already retired from full-time competition once, doing so at the end of 2015. He wasn’t supposed to be back necessarily, certainly not in the No. 24.
Except here he is, having driven in seven races for Hendrick Motorsports in 2016 after Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s concussion kept him out of the No. 88 for the remainder of the season. That “final” race at Homestead-Miami Speedway? Now it’s replaced with Martinsville Speedway, and who knows if that’ll even be all she wrote.
But let’s go under the assumption that Sunday is indeed Gordon’s last race. It certainly wouldn’t be a bad circuit to go out on; after all, what currently stands as his final Cup win came there one year ago.
If Gordon can finish even within the top 10 at Martinsville, let alone win, it’ll be a great end to a fairly illustrious career. But even if he finishes 40th, it won’t change his standing in NASCAR as a whole. It’s about what came before the final race; what happens in the last race before retiring is either icing on the cake or a complete afterthought.
It raises an interesting question regardless: how do some of the famed, now-retired drivers in NASCAR stack up against one another when it comes to their final Cup race?
Well, let’s put it this way: a top 10- or even top-15 finish would be nothing to disregard as a bad day. Some of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history went out with a whimper rather than a bang, after all.
Richard Petty finished 35th in his final start at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992, finishing hundreds of laps down after a wreck ruined his day early in the race, only finishing the event because he pulled onto the track with two laps to go.
Darrell Waltrip’s final race showed him 34th at Atlanta in 2000, while Bill Elliott last raced at Daytona International Speedway in 2012, finishing 37th after a crash on lap 123.
Heck, even lead-lap finishes have been uncommon. Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin happen to be exceptions, with finishes of 13th and 19th in 2005 and 2013, respectively, at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And a large percentage didn’t even finish their respective races. Bobby Allison’s career ended after a 39th-place run at Pocono Raceway in 1988, crashing on the first lap. Lee Petty was out on lap 9 at Watkins Glen International in 1964. Tim Flock’s engine expired on lap 255 at Charlotte in 1961, relegating him to 37th.
Of course, then there’s Dale Earnhardt, who finished 12th at Daytona in 2001 after a last-lap crash that took his life.
But then there are the bright spots. Take David Pearson, whose final race culminated in a 10th-place run at Michigan International Speedway in 1986. Cale Yarborough had the same result at a different track two years later, when he finished 10th at Atlanta. Meanwhile, ’60s stalwarts Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson finished third and fifth, respectively, in the 1966 American 500 at Rockingham Speedway, a race that happened to be the end of both of their careers.
The examples flow from there, with more recent retired drivers including Jeff Burton (15th, Bristol, 2014), Terry Labonte (33rd, Talladega, 2014), Dale Jarrett (37th, Bristol, 2008) and Sterling Marlin (35th, Martinsville, 2009).
It’s not at all surprising that the vast majority of final races in NASCAR careers ended on a low note rather than a high. After all, many of these drivers ran their final race because they were retiring, and few have retired at or even categorically near the top of their game. Think about Petty and Waltrip, both drivers who, by the time 1992 and 2000, respectively, rolled around, weren’t competing for wins anymore — in fact, sometimes they struggled to even make the races they wanted to run. It’s not like you’re expecting the defending champion to suddenly quit directly after the fact, generally speaking.
That’s what makes Gordon a little different. Had he not come back on a part-time basis to replace Earnhardt this season, his last race in the Cup Series would have been a sixth-place finish at Homestead, very much a high-end finish compared to most of his contemporaries. While his results in the No. 88 this season haven’t exactly been up to par, with just one top 10 and an average finish of 15th, remember this: not only does he return to Martinsville, the site of his last win to date, but Martinsville in general has been great to Gordon, with nine wins over 46 starts in his career.
Sunday marks his 47th. If past results of retiring drivers in their final races were any indication, he’d be an also-ran. But this is Jeff Gordon we’re talking about.
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