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Gordon’s Heroics Not Confined To Race Tracks

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 6 2012

Jeff Gordon is serious about racing, but not about racing alone. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

His philanthropic work on behalf of children-in-need began in 1999, long before Jeff Gordon became a parent of two healthy children.

On his way to Talladega Superspeedway Thursday morning, Sir Jeff logged some quality time with a group of children not as fortunate as Ella and Leo Gordon, the beautiful and healthy offspring of Jeff and Ingrid Vandebosch Gordon. And you’ve got to believe that as Gordon interacted with these young cancer survivors inside a bustling North Texas shopping mall, he couldn’t help but think…”there but for the grace of God…”

A four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Gordon played host to pediatric cancer patients from the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, treating them to a day of racing and rides at LEGOLAND Discovery Center in Grapevine. His audience could not have been more wide-eyed. Four-year-old Alaina Jones, of Fort Worth; 9-year-old Ian Lemus, of Farmers Branch; 9-year-old Tyler Nolan, of Grapevine; 13-year-old Austin Phillips, of Hewitt, along with Jones’ 6-year-old sister Averie, who has helped her younger sibling through the cancer treatments, joined Gordon for a whirlwind visit.

“It was a great opportunity,” Gordon said Friday during his Chase for the Sprint Cup media appearance at Talladega, site of Sunday’s Good Sam 500. “I got a chance to meet some cancer survivors – young ones – and it was awesome. To be able to spend time with them, build some cars out of LEGOs, race them and just have a fun…relaxing day with them.”

Gordon, 42, is one of NASCAR’s most active drivers on behalf of charitable causes. His main work has evolved into the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation – founded in 1999 and which now primarily supports children battling cancer – and Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Hospital in Concord, N.C. Gordon historically has supported

Jeff Gordon made a stop in Texas this week to meet with cancer survivors. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

charities working on behalf of children-in-need, including the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Hendrick Bone Marrow Foundation and Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

The Jeff Gordon Foundation has benefitted tens of thousands of children battling cancer, including those who joined him Thursday. Gordon’s generosity has stretched into North Texas in conjunction with Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas. The Jeff Gordon Corvette Raffle has helped raise more than $2 million, with $500,000 going to Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas during the previous six years.

Funds have been used for grants to aid local pediatric cancer organizations, including those affiliated with each of the children he met at the center. The group represented Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, Ronald McDonald House, Cancer Care Services and Baylor Healthcare Systems.

“It was fun being able to meet some kids that have been battling with cancer, which is something really important to me. It’s certainly a place I’ll be coming back to,” said Gordon, whose visit also served to promote the AAA Texas 500 weekend at Texas Motor Speedway Nov. 2-4. “I enjoyed building the (LEGO) cars. I loved seeing everyone get so creative and seeing their competitive nature come out.”

That competitive nature was on display when the group had the opportunity to do a timed test run with the newly built LEGO cars. Dubbed “AAA Texas 500 Qualifying,” Phillips won the pole with a time of 3.74-seconds while the superstar who ranks third in NASCAR history for career poles could only muster fourth-fastest among the group.

Lemus, who was diagnosed with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma in February 2010, shared his cancer survivor story with Gordon. Following more than a year of undergoing surgeries, spinal taps and chemotherapy treatments at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, Lemus won his fight as the cancer went into remission in March.

“Meeting Jeff Gordon was amazing,” said Lemus, who rode Merlin’s Apprentice with Gordon as his co-driver. “The car racing, the building, the driving, Merlin’s Apprentice, everything, it was the best. It was great. I got to hold the checkered flag and green flag – it was awesome!”

Gordon, who treated each of the kids with signed Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation hats and a gift bag from

Jeff Gordon hosted The Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation Kick-it game at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga. last month. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Tami Kelly Pope)

TMS, received a surprise of his own in the form of a replica of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. Model-builder Kathyrn Kolb of the center invested 40 hours and more than 500 LEGO bricks building an intricate replica that included a driver’s seat, sponsor decals on the front of the car and the iconic No. 24 in yellow LEGO bricks on the sides.

“This is very, very cool,” Gordon said of the replica. “If you’ve messed around with LEGO blocks before, you know that it‘s not easy to build something like this. They did an amazing job with their experts that know how to do this. My kids are going to go crazy over it.”

Gordon is 10th in the Chase standings after three races, 48 points behind upstart leader Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing. A six-time winner on Talladega’s high-banked, 2.66-mile layout, Gordon acknowledged there is no set strategy that works best in the last restrictor plate race of the season.

“If there was, we all would be doing it,” said Gordon, who will be wheeling the No. 24 Drive To End Hunger Chevy this weekend. “Drafting can be fun and the finish is usually exciting, but you don’t know when, where or if you’re going to be caught up in the ‘Big One.’ I’ve raced up-front and been caught up in a wreck. I’ve also been involved while running in the middle of the pack and while running what I thought was a conservative distance back of the main pack, but I’ve won using each of those strategies.

“You may have to use each at some point during the race. You just need to be willing to change and adjust if a different plan will put you in a better position to win. You rely on your spotter providing good information about which lane is doing what or who has a ‘run,’ but you’re constantly looking at the mirrors in your car in that situation.”

Gordon’s streak of top-three finishes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway in the previous two races has him optimistic about the remaining Chase schedule.

“This place can either be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Gordon said of ‘Dega. “If we’re going to have any shot at moving up the standings or having any shot at the championship, then things will need to go our way this weekend. Everybody knows they can win here, and we believe we can win as well. We always seem to have fast cars here. We look at this race as an opportunity.”

Similarly, while TMS has been one of the more challenging tracks for Gordon, he has found success in NASCAR’s traditional fall stop at the 1.5-mile quadoval in Fort Worth. Gordon has earned four top-10 finishes in seven fall races, including a sixth-place result in last year’s AAA Texas 500.

“It’s been a hit-or-miss track for me over the years, but I feel like our mile-and-a-half program has really stepped-up this year,” said Gordon, who won the spring Samsung 500 at TMS in 2009. “We have been strong at these types of tracks and I think we’ve only gotten better as the year has gone on. I feel like if we can gain those points that we’re lacking right now we can come to Texas in good shape. We’ve got a heck of a shot at performing at a high level to keep it interesting for the championship.”

Meanwhile, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson received a vote of confidence this week when the AARP notified Hendrick Motorsports of its desire to extend its sponsorship contract for the Drive To End Hunger program for senior citizens on the No. 24 Impala.

“There was a clause in the contract where they could re-up,” said Gordon, who has emerged as perhaps the perfect spokesman for this most unorthodox stock car racing sponsorship. “It was already in the contract for 2013 but they had to make a decision whether they intended beyond 2013 so they had an ‘out’ there. We knew they were going to re-up for 2013 but then they said we not only want to do that, we want to extend into 2014.

“Yeah, definitely it’s a good thing. I love the work that they are doing. It’s been a privilege to work with them and learn about such an important cause and the fact that they are really making an impact. I think from the beginning of this relationship we knew it’s not going to happen in one year or even two years, it takes time to build a program up like that. I think this is a great sign that momentum is still building and they know they need to continue to further that work. I love the fact that they’ve chosen our team and Hendrick to do that.”

That done, figure Gordon will be chasing that elusive fifth championship _ maybe more _ at least through that 2014 season. “At this point in my career, I don’t take it year-to-year; I take it based on where we’re at with sponsorship,” Gordon said. “I look out and plan ‘OK, if sponsors are saying we want to do a three-year deal or two-year deal or five-year deal we’ll sit down and have these conversations and talk about if where they are at is where I’m at.’

“I feel good. Things are going well. We’re competitive. I’m as good back-wise and health-wise as I’ve been in a long time, so there is no reason for me to think any different than saying ‘yes’ to their offer of going through 2014 right now.”

For all the parents of children-in-need who Sir Jeff’s philanthropic work has touched_ all those kids not as beautiful and healthy as Ella and Leo Gordon _ that is another reason to hope and to pray…”there but for the grace of God…”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 6 2012
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