I've had a weird feeling over the last year. It's inexplicable, but I must acknowledge it.
Jeff Gordon is retiring? I hope he gets a win...and it would be kind of cool if he won the Cup in his last year.
Whoa, whoa...did I say that out loud?
Yes, it's true, Gordon has crossed that river, the one that most of the great NASCAR drivers go across as they get near the end of their careers. They go from being hated, disrespectful, unappreciative youths pushing out the old guys we grew up with, to, well, the old guys we grew up with. And when that happens, usually with some amount of adversity to show that they've earned it, the fans come around to them. It happened to Rusty. It happened to Dale. It happened to DW. And now, it's happened to Gordon.
The funny thing is, though, that Gordon was never really guilty of anything but being talented. In retrospect, it was the situation that was thrust upon him, and the people who surrounded him, that bred the contempt. He was just the face of it, the personification of all the things NASCAR fans in the 1990's feared. So, in turn, after every win he got showered with boos (and, in some cases, beer cans).
There was Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford, who was one part Earl Woods and one part Don King. Besides pushing Gordon through the ranks exceptionally quickly for the time period (sprint cars by 16, Busch Grand National by 20 and Winston Cup by 22), Bickford can be credited with masterminding the marketing schemes that caused Gordon to be so overexposed. Ray Evernham, Gordon's first crew chief, earned a reputation for pushing the boundaries of the rulebook (see the story on the infamous T-Rex car that obliterated the field at the 1997 Winston) and drew more ire as the win count rose. And then there was car owner Rick Hendrick, who used Gordon's success on the track as a means to raise sponsorship fees, allowing him to flat outspend the the competition and creating an arms race that NASCAR still can't seem to corral.
The guys who became Gordon's rivals didn't help his cause, either. While everyone romanticizes the year-long battle with Dale Earnhardt in 1995, for my money it was the ongoing saga versus Mark Martin in 1997 and 1998 that truly defines the dominance era in Gordon's career. Martin, a small, soft-spoken driver from Arkansas with an inexplicable affinity for rap music, had been in Cup with Jack Roush and Ford for almost a decade after beating personal demons and struggling in the lower divisions, and after several near-misses at the Cup, was back in a position to finally take it. Except, Gordon, seemingly every week, was there thwarting his hopes. Gordon's tires always seemed to last longer, the breaks always fell his way. When Gordon won Michigan the week after Martin's father passed, fans were up in arms that a poetic moment of Martin winning in his honor was lost. Martin was the exact type of driver the majority of NASCAR's southern fanbase could identify with, and Gordon, having risen so quickly, could only be seen as the heel. For myself, who had about 8 Mark Martin diecasts and a giant poster hanging on my wall, Gordon was Public Enemy #1, the Habs to my Bruins. Nothing was more sinister than that rainbow colored 24.
To a whole new audience of NASCAR fans, though, Gordon was a superstar. His brightly colored car drew kids in like no other stock car before or since, and with a cool demeanor and no southern drawl, he appealed to both fans in places that weren't traditional NASCAR markets, and to the sponsors and marketers that wanted to sell to those fans. No longer was Winston Cup a regional phenomenon, it was now must-see TV on national networks. By the turn of the millennium, Fox and NBC would open up their pocketbooks to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to get the rights to air the top 3 divisions of the sport. Sponsors clamored to get a piece of the pie, and often attached themselves to increasingly younger drivers. Each one, it was hoped, would be the next Jeff Gordon.
It was in this environment that the seeds of Gordon's redemption with the old school crowd would be sown. First, Gordon's own prodigy, Jimmie Johnson, a former off-road racer from California, would debut with as much hype as his mentor and co-team owner. Then, in conjunction with NEXTEL's title sponsorship, NASCAR chief Brian France controversially announced a new championship format for 2004, titled "The Chase", that would add a playoff system intended to help boost ratings in the fall against the NFL.
That first season, Gordon would fall just short of the Cup, but remained competitive throughout. The next season, though, Gordon would miss the cut for the Chase and finish outside the top 10 in points for the first time since his rookie year. Then, while he contended again in subsequent seasons, it was Johnson, reviled for being too corporate and having the ultimate cheater crew chief, Chad Knaus, who rattled off 5 successive championships, often when Gordon would have won the Cup had the Chase format not been in place. He had become the tragic figure to the hardliners - the man who rightfully deserved the crown based on the entire season, not the pretender who was better in only the final 10 races. Once the symbol of the change NASCAR was undergoing, he was now the victim.
Which leads us to today. Gordon is one of the last remaining links to NASCAR's 1990s boom era, but more importantly, he's one of NASCAR's few remaining true superstars. Tony Stewart will follow Gordon out of the sport next year, and that will pretty much leave only Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a big ticket draw, and his career is on the back end, too. Oh, sure, you'll still have Kenseth (for a time), Harvick, Hamiln, Edwards, Logano, the Busch Bros., Keselowski, and even Johnson, but none of those guys move the needle like Gordon, Stewart, and Dale Jr. Gordon's spot in the 24 will be taken by Chase Elliott, the son of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, a very young man who NASCAR is praying becomes the type of transcendent star his predecessor was. It will be much more difficult now. NASCAR is no longer a best-kept secret waiting for a star to breakthrough into the national consciousness; instead, everyone knows what it is, and few will change their minds about it just because of one driver.
When Jeff Gordon steps out of the car on Sunday, a big part of NASCAR and it's success will go with him. That's why I, and many others who previously could not stand that screaming bright evil Monte Carlo, will be sad when it happens, and why we're also kind of, almost, sort of pulling for him to get that 5th Cup. He...well, he deserves it.
By the same token, he could have had the common decency to grow a mustache for this final race.