|Photo Credit: Chris Nagy|
Just 400 miles are all that remains of 2015 competition in the top stock car racing series in the world. The conclusion of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season at Homestead-Miami Speedway once again guarantees 43 drivers will attempt to take the checkered flag for the last event of the year. Four drivers enter the race with the opportunity of being crowned the series champion, depending on the outcome at Homestead-Miami Speedway. For the majority of the field though, victory or defeat is simply a reason to come back next year. Jeff Gordon has a chance of claiming the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup title but has planned the outcome to this race that will hold a note of permanency to a career of 23 years.
Jeff Gordon will be starting this race vehicle’s engine for the final time in competition. The #24 Chevrolet SS fielded by Hendrick Motorsports final drive by the currently four-time champion in NASCAR’s top series is forged with some impressive superstar credentials. In 796 NASCAR Sprint Cup events, Gordon has won 93 times including 3 Daytona 500s, 5 Brickyard 400s and 3 All-Star race wins. Successes worthy of respect and admiration, the peak of Jeff Gordon’s career is noted for a period where grandstands of fans used to boo the driver of the #24 machine. At home watching every race, I used to do the exact same thing through the late 1990s through to the early 2000s. About 15 years ago, I would be celebrating the occurrence gleefully for a time where ‘Wonder Boy’ could stop accumulating victories.
I started following NASCAR in the mid-1990s initially propelled by my desire to see a General Motors vehicle in victory lane. As a young person, you would think that a driver like Jeff Gordon driving a Chevrolet Lumina or Monte Carlo has my cheers. Well, initially I was celebratory to the idea of Gordon winning in the colourful DuPont race car. However, the true devotion of my fan dedication became a black car wearing a #3 and GM Goodwrench wording. I remembered when Jeff Gordon his first Cup championship in 1995 thinking even though he beat Dale Earnhardt I found reasons to appreciate the 24-year-old’s achievements looking at the season-end standings.
So when did my attitude towards to Rainbow Warrior turn so stormy? Something happened in the middle of 1996 and a 10-race winning season for Jeff Gordon. It was also the year where Dale Earnhardt suffered the nasty Talladega crash where it seemed it took something out of the momentum of the #3 Chevrolet that took years to recover. Was it a case I felt Gordon were taking victories away from my favourite driver that caused some anger towards the #24 car? There was the North Wilkesboro Speedway race where Gordon won with Earnhardt finishing in the runner-up spot. However, it wasn’t like #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet was in contention for every race Gordon won. Maybe it is just a simple sport fan preference such as disliking the Kansas City Royals World Series win when they beat the Toronto Blue Jays. Maybe if you were a Toronto baseball you pretended the World Series didn’t even exist since 1993.
Along with the frequent winning, I also had an issue with the way Jeff Gordon was advertised with NASCAR. NASCAR and media affiliated with the stock car racing sanctioning body were almost endlessly trying to sell us on how great the driver of the DuPont-sponsored car was. For a driver with just a few seasons in the auto racing series, there sometimes seem to be little more than recent success to justify claims of greatness. While it seemed debatable in the late 1990s, there was some prophecy behind the hype as we consider Jeff Gordon’s career in 2015.
Jeff Gordon also appeared to be one of the first NASCAR drivers to have a persona that was heavily-controlled by handlers. Other drivers of the series obviously had some appreciation for how to behave throughout professional racing history previously but the feedback from Jeff Gordon sometimes came off like a press release. It was hard to truly understand soul of a driver who followed a routine of wooing as well as thanking his team and sponsors after every race in a manner it seemed like a broken record.
Near the end of the century, my Jeff Gordon hatred was at an all-time high. Eventually, my mom found a sponge brick for me to hurl at the television screen anytime the #24 car appeared (I’ve been wondering where that sponge brick was this year when the Canadian election was preventing me to thoroughly appreciate the rare summer we receive in this country). From watching pre-race driver introductions, I knew I was not alone in my distaste for the constantly victorious Gordon. It actually seems odd in retrospect to believe the intensity of the booing at races. Recently, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch have also received equal contempt from fans but only after earning a villain-like reputation on the race. In contrast, Jeff Gordon drove clean and simply won a lot of races.
A turning point of my personality hostility towards Gordon came at Watkins Glen in 2003 following a late race accident. Despite how much I despised Jeff Gordon, I never wanted him to be seriously hurt or placed in a situation where he would be harmed. A hard crash for the #24 car, I was relieved that he was able to leave the vehicle. What really made me side with Gordon was his less-than textbook trip to the medical care in the ambulance. He was vocal in criticizing the response after his accident as well slow arrival to be evaluated. So soon after Dale Earnhardt’s passing as well several other high-profile NASCAR fatalities, I could completely understand why a driver would be so impassioned in concern for medical attention. There have also been other moments where Jeff Gordon appeared unchained and more of a personality beyond a brand.
|Photo Credit Chris Nagy|
Changing my boos into cheers over the years, the Jeff Gordon I was watching him became a seasoned veteran. The wins appeared harder fought with the reality that almost every new driver to the series wanted to be the latest ‘Wonder Boy’. Even in my anti-Gordon era, I remembered one race victory at Martinsville in 1997 that truly admired. Early in the race, the #24 car spun and lost track position (can’t remember if it was due to a flat tire). On the tight short track, Jeff Gordon charged through masterfully to take the win. Some races more than others showed how much of a truly gifted racer Jeff Gordon was behind the wheel. Later in his career as he passed Dale Earnhardt’s win total and later the 84 victories of Darrell Waltrip to become the all-time leader in the NASCAR Cup Series’ modern era, there was no thought in my mind that contradicted the belief this occurrence was meant to be.
At Martinsville this year (win #93), there was never a moment I was more enthusiastic to see Jeff Gordon win. Based on the circumstances, it was almost ranked as high as a Dale Earnhardt Jr victory. This has been a scenario I would not have fathomed in the 1990s. It’s one person who can silence a critic, it takes an outstanding one who can tun a critic into a fan.
Enjoy your last run in the #24 car today Jeff Gordon and thank you for very a villain as well as a hero in this NASCAR fan’s life.