by Ryan Isley
From winning championships to kissing the bricks to being mentioned in a song by Nelly, you could say Jeff Gordon has had a pretty successful NASCAR career. But it had to come to an end sometime – all good things do.
It was announced on Thursday that 2015 would be the final season in which Jeff Gordon competes full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. One of NASCAR’s best competitors ever, Gordon will finish his career third all-time in wins unless he has a career year in 2015. Entering the season, Gordon has found victory lane 92 times in NASCAR’s highest level, trailing only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
Early in his career, Gordon was one of those drivers that you either loved or you hated – there was little, if any, in between. The reason was pretty simple for most – Dale Earnhardt.
If you loved Dale Earnhardt, you hated Jeff Gordon. If you hated Dale Earnhardt, you loved Jeff Gordon. Gordon came into NASCAR at a time when Richard Petty was leaving (Gordon’s first race was Petty’s last) and Earnhardt was the man to beat. Earnhardt at the time was already a five-time champion and was one of the good old boys. Gordon was a fresh-faced kid from California with whom most NASCAR fans couldn’t relate. Gordon was the competition. He wasn’t a good old boy. Therefore, if you loved Earnhardt, Gordon was the enemy. But if you hated Earnhardt – and there were plenty who did – Gordon was the new hope; the guy who was going to challenge “The Intimidator.”
Me? I was an Earnhardt fan, so that meant no rooting for Gordon. While I was never what you would call a Jeff Gordon fan, I respected the guy, loved the way he drove, appreciated his ability. But I was an Earnhardt guy. And for me, rooting for Jeff Gordon would be like a Duke fan rooting for North Carolina; a Navy man rooting for Army; a Hatfield rooting for a McCoy.
When Gordon showed that he belonged by winning 40 races and three championships in a four-year span from 1995-1998, more people started to hate the driver of the No. 24. After all, like they say – people hate a winner. It was becoming more and more apparent that Gordon not only wasn’t going away, but he was going to be the best in the sport very soon if he wasn’t already.
Even after Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, I still wasn’t a fan of Gordon. Again, I respected him and appreciated him but I still couldn’t root for him. After all, once the father passed, I still had the son to root for, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was entering his second full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series the season Earnhardt was killed at Daytona.
But the funny thing about Gordon is that unlike most drivers, Gordon was one who if you hated him early in his career, you could actually be talked into liking him later in his career. Or at least I was.
I think the day that made me start liking Gordon even more was when it was announced that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would be joining Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports starting in the 2008 season. If it was good enough for my favorite driver to join forces with Gordon, it was good enough for me. While I was still rooting for Earnhardt, Jr., I began watching and cheering on his new teammates at Hendrick Motorsports – Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears. In the years that followed, Gordon and Johnson remained but Mears was replaced by Mark Martin and then Martin was replaced by Kasey Kahne. Through it all, I began liking – and rooting for – all of the Hendrick drivers. Jeff Gordon included.
It was a strange feeling to be pulling for Gordon or Johnson to win the championship in years which Earnhardt, Jr. had already been eliminated. Strange, but somehow if felt right. I had rooted for one of the best there ever was in Earnhardt and watching Gordon and Johnson, you just knew they were near that level, if not at that level. I wasn’t front-running, either. I never purchased a Gordon shirt or a Johnson hat. I rooted for them to win once my guy was eliminated, not before.
You don’t always get to fully appreciate the great ones. This season, we will be able to do just that – honor one of the greatest the sport has ever seen in a sendoff unlike any since Petty. NASCAR is losing one of the good ones. But at least he is going out on his own terms in his own time.
And I will tell you this – if there was ever a year in which I would root for Gordon over anyone else to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, 2015 would be the year. It wouldn’t upset me one bit to see Gordon climb out of the No. 24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and pick up that championship trophy one last time.
I think even Earnhardt would be ok with that.