I cannot believe that Jeff Gordon is retiring as a full time NASCAR driver. It seems like only yesterday that I was watching him race sprint cars on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder. He was a skinny fellow with a sad mustache and bad haircut; he looked like he would be more at home at a Rush concert than a dirt track.
Somewhere, I have a T-Shirt from his rookie NASCAR season in 1993. Yes, I am a fan, well… I supported him, and still do, to a certain extent. A lot of stuff changed when Dodge came back into the sport in 2001, but now they are gone, and that is a rant for another time.
I almost attended Gordon’s debut race, since it was also Richard Petty’s final race, which was the 1992 season finale at Atlanta International Raceway, or had they changed the name to Atlanta Motor Speedway at that point? It’s hard to remember. All I know is, I haven’t been back since the track was needlessly reconfigured; but that too is another rant.
Unbeknown to anyone, until now, Gordon is the main reason I got back into NASCAR, after a few years of half-watching, and generally not giving a crap. I was so fed up after the way the sanctioning body treated Tim Richmond in 1988, that I didn’t feel like I wanted to waste any more time and money on a sport that would that would do someone so dirty. I’ve written about Richmond before, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, so I won’t reopen those wounds again.
What was it about Gordon that I liked? Hmm… I think it was that he came from an open wheel background, as opposed to the traditional route of Late Model Stock cars. He was born in California, and his family moved to Indiana so that he could race with the adults at an earlier age. Is that the wisest move ever?
In addition to NASCAR, I grew up watching, well, mostly reading about, Indy Cars and Formula 1. A lot of people in the South didn’t see this as “real racing,” but nothing could be farther from the truth. Yeah, F1 and Indy Cars don’t bang wheels or “trade paint” like stock cars, but often times the races are just as intense, albeit in a different fashion. I enjoyed it when drivers like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, or other open wheel drivers would show up at a NASCAR race and take home the trophy. It didn’t happen often, but it was nice all the same.
Gordon could have gone into Indy Cars or F1, but would he have had the success that he has in NASCAR? Who knows? As with any sport, a lot of winning and losing is up to the team around you. Gordon was fortunate that team owner Rick Hendrick liked his driving ability. Yeah, Gordon crashed a lot during his rookie season, but Hendrick stuck with him, and his faith paid off big time.
Hendrick is one of the smartest people in the garage area. A smart idea was to listen to Gordon and hire Ray Evernham as crew chief, since Gordon liked working with him in what is now known as the Xfinity Series. That combination won three championships and a ton of races together. If Evernham hadn’t left Hendrick Motorsports in late 1999 to start his own team, and in doing so, bringing Dodge back into Cup, who knows how many trophies they would have won. And if Evernham hadn’t sold his team to George Gillett, Dodge might still have a presence in NASCAR. Or not. That too is another rant.
Gordon won a fourth championship in 2001 with Robbie Loomis as crew chief, but that was the final one up to this point. It seems that his era is over, and we are now in the Jimmie Johnson era, or is that over too? I still say that Johnson will win another title in 2016, since it seems that he is unable to win one in the first two seasons under any given points/Chase format. So, all you Johnson haters out there, pool your resoures, start a Kickstarter campaign, win the lotto, whatever it takes to get Dodge back into NASCAR, and throw the rest of the money at Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, and beg him to run the operation. It’s either that, or pray that NASCAR keep the same points system more than two years in a row.