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Flat Spot On: Gordon’s Last Hurrah Is No Gimme

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 22 2015
Jeff Gordon's important Sprint Cup career will come to an end when the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway comes to an end. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

Jeff Gordon’s important Sprint Cup career will come to an end when the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway comes to an end. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Jeff Gordon has equilibrium, the kind that results from the inner ear as opposed to the old saw about the seat of the pants. But he also has good equilibrium with his inner self. Hence, he’s a rare sports star who can be himself in a crowd of thundering stock cars, in a crowd of fans and bugopinionmedia, or in a corporate setting.

There are other sports stars that have performed at a high level with style and unblemished personal character for many years – Cal Ripken, Jr., a fellow ironman, comes to mind. In football, Joe Montana won the big ones without getting wacked out about his own identity or trying to give himself a psychological edge by hustling the ball guys to alter some air pressures. And has anybody represented pro basketball better over the years than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

It’s rare in any sport in the modern media age for an athlete to sail through with so much success without occasionally tripping over feet of clay – either the publicly known kind or the private version observed by media members who know better.  (Enter Michael Jordan.) Perhaps what’s most unique about Gordon is that he is such a nice guy and still celebrated in a sport where nice guys are considered out of place.

Can a nice guy finish first in his final championship Chase? Now that the reality has set in that Gordon will no longer be among the thundering herd and instead in the broadcast booth, there’s no doubt he is THE sentimental favorite among a field of them in today’s race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

There was something preternaturally savvy about Gordon, even back in the days when he was

Once one of the most hated drivers in NASCAR, Jeff Gordon has become a fan favorite. (RacinToday/HHP photo Harold Hinson)

Jeff Gordon has to be the people’s choice this weekend in Homestead. (RacinToday/HHP photo Harold Hinson)

working on a seven-hair mustache and sported that haircut with bangs. Or, when he cried in his helmet after his first superspeedway victory in the Busch Series. He knew how to work the angles, hence extra time with a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution whose readership included the corporate headquarters of a sponsor his team was pursuing, a company whose name he worked into the conversation. This was back in the Busch Series days, but even then there was never a hustler aspect, or an early Waltrip-like sheen of “I am the greatest.”

I have it on good authority – longtime crew chief Dale Inman – that even NASCAR’s perennial handsome, humble, smiling good ol’ star Richard Petty initially thought very highly of himself as the son of a three-time champion. And Earnhardt was always a divide-and-conquer type who wanted no doubt that he was the straw who stirred the drink.

There is a guy who is just like Gordon – and has already clinched more championships. But Jimmie Johnson came along at a time when NASCAR didn’t need a new image and someone to bang fenders with Earnhardt, which was the only route to credibility. NASCAR really got lucky with Gordon, who couldn’t get a cup of coffee from CART team owners caught up in some craze about imports from faraway lands being better at wheel-to-wheel racing. Didn’t they see the kid on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder like the rest of us?

I do have a bone to pick with Gordon. He hasn’t won a championship since he turned 30, yet

(RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

NASCAR got lucky when it got Jeff Gordon. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

had four up until that point. Although he would never step out of character and tout any such thing, the prospect of eight championships loomed. And, Johnson is likely to get there. Why not Gordon?

It was a matter of Gordon’s equilibrium. He recognized he wanted to enjoy life and in the aftermath of two significant events altered his approach to racing in a way that allowed Johnson to get away despite sharing the same equipment at Hendrick Motorsports.

The first event was the loss of crew chief Ray Evernham, the hard-driving inspirational leader and management genius who led Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors to his first three titles. Evernham was relentless about winning the most races, the most poles and being fastest in practice. It wasn’t the pressure that took so much a toll on Gordon as the inevitable heavy crashes in Texas and at Pocono. At the crucial juncture, Gordon elected to stay with Rick Hendrick and hand-picked the relatively easy-going and almost shy Robbie Loomis as his crew chief.

In his first nine seasons, Gordon won 58 races and 39 poles. In the last 14 seasons, Gordon has won 35 races and 42 poles, including four poles this season. The poles and this season’s laps led indicate Gordon is as fast as ever. Where did the victories and championships go?

In addition to the departure of Evernham – try to imagine Johnson’s ongoing success without his “marriage” to crew chief Chad Knaus – the biggest change in Gordon’s career was the death of his friend Dale Earnahrdt. That wasn’t just a wake-up call for Gordon but to all drivers of his generation.

In the absence of “The Intimidator,” NASCAR racing went back to the days of Petty versus

Jeff Gordon in his office at Homestead. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

Jeff Gordon in his office at Homestead. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

David Pearson, when the star drivers shepherded one another around superspeedways in relatively safe fashion before letting it all hang out at race’s end. Guys like Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and others got so good at this that NASCAR eventually had to introduce “Boys, have at it,” to get more action on the track.

An aside here. This ability to shepherd one another around in relatively safe fashion is what put the established generation of drivers at odds with talented newcomers like Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, who constantly pressed the issue and were retaliated against for being outside the lines. The incident between Kenseth and Logano at Kansas Speedway that has become the centerpiece of this year’s Chase was the ultimate culmination of this quintessential disagreement on how to race.

For his part, Gordon was more careful with his racing compared to the Evernham years. Though able to win his share of races and make the Chase, Gordon did not drive as

Jeff Gordon and the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet at Homestead – one last time. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

Jeff Gordon and the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet at Homestead – one last time. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

aggressively as some of his peers. Just as with his fortuitous victory at Martinsville that got him into today’s final at Homestead, Gordon always tried to put himself into position to win without taking too many risks. Johnson, meanwhile, was unencumbered by the Earnhardt experience and beyond that became the smoothest passer in stock cars since David Pearson.

Gordon remains a consistent winner (despite goose eggs in 2008 and 2010) and has continued to show the way for a sport in need of telegenic drivers capable of appealing to young boys and women as well as men, and to all geographical regions. Over the last 23 seasons, he has been unfailingly interesting, insightful, generous and witty enough in his interviews, almost without fail.

Now it comes down to a chance to retire as the reigning champion. That’s sort of like nobody being able to beat him ever again. That’s why I imagine we’ll see a Jeff Gordon who will take a few more risks than usual at Homestead. But if it comes down to wrecking, bet on the other guy.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 22 2015
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