Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 22, 2015

Jeffy Parks The Car

Late Sunday afternoon, after an hour and a half delay brought on by south Florida thunderstorms, the field of forty-three cars and drivers finally took the green flag at Homestead Miami Speedway for the start of the Ford EcoBoost 400. For NASCAR and forty-two of the contestants it was beginning of the final race of the season. For 44-year old Jeff Gordon, it was the start of the last ride of a career in which he remade his sport.

Born in northern California, Gordon began racing quarter midgets, tiny replicas of open-wheeled racers, at the age of five. Within a year he had won thirty-five events and set five records at the little track near his San Francisco area home. By the time he was a teenager his family had moved to Indiana to give Gordon greater access to a variety of racing opportunities. Formula One legend Jackie Stewart came ever so close to enticing a 20-year old Gordon to Europe for a possible career in open-wheeled racing; but just as the Flying Scot was making his entreaties the young future superstar of stock car racing received a sponsorship opportunity in NASCAR’s developmental Busch Series. It was a twist of fate that altered the future of NASCAR.

Gordon made his debut at the sport’s highest level series, then known as the Winston Cup Series, on November 15, 1992. Though it was impossible to know the significance at the time, it was the same race at which Richard Petty made his final Winston Cup start. Petty, known simply as “The King,” was the face of NASCAR for more than a generation, and continues to hold many of the sport’s career records. He leads the record books with two hundred career wins, a phenomenal twenty-seven of them in 1967 alone, including ten in a row, both numbers that are records as well. He won the most poles, has the most top-ten finishes and the most wins at the Daytona 500 with seven. Petty’s father Lee won the very first 500 in 1959, and his son Kyle and grandson Adam both raced in NASCAR’s top series.

But just as Richard Petty symbolized the sport he was also a reminder of NASCAR’s roots, which for many years placed limits on its popularity. Petty, like his father, son and grandson, is a native of Level Cross, an unincorporated hamlet in central North Carolina. While NASCAR’s headquarters are located in Daytona Beach, Florida, the sport’s sanctioning body maintains four offices in North Carolina; for the roots of stock car racing date to the days of prohibition and outlaw bootleggers evading police through the hills of Appalachia. With that background and with most races on the schedule run in the south, for years NASCAR was viewed by many as a popular but essentially regional sport.

Just as the France family sought to expand the reach of the sport that they controlled, along came a young driver born in California and living in Indiana. In 1993 Gordon was NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year. One year later he won the inaugural Brickyard 400, as stock cars raced at the venerable home of American open-wheeled racing, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The following season Gordon won his first Winton Cup championship.

As NASCAR doubled the number of tracks outside the south that were part of the annual schedule, Gordon dominated the sport through the 1990s. Between 1995 and 1999 he won 47 races. In 1997 he captured the Winston Million, a bonus paid by the tobacco company to a driver who won three of the four biggest races on the calendar. Gordon earned the check with victories at the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, and the Southern 500 at Darlington.

The 1995 championship was followed by three more titles, in 1997, 1998 and 2001. After Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed at the 2001 Daytona 500, Gordon increasingly became the public face of the sport, broadening its reach and bringing in new fans. In 2003 he became the first and remains the only NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live. In all Gordon took ninety-three checkered flags, third most in NASCAR history. He holds the record for most wins on restrictor plate tracks with twelve and on road courses with nine. He also holds the record for most wins at four different tracks; all of which are, fittingly enough, outside the south.

When the number 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet accelerated towards the green flag and Homestead’s start-finish line Sunday, it was Gordon’s 797th consecutive Sprint Cup Series start, a record that not even The King can claim. Despite not winning during NASCAR’s “regular season,” Gordon made the ten-race Chase for the Championship; and with a surprising victory three weeks ago at Martinsville he was one of the final four drivers with a chance to win the Series crown. No doubt in the movie version he would have raced through the field in the final laps to claim a fifth title. But as all fans know, in real life the sports gods are just as likely to be cruel or at best indifferent as they are to be kind.

There was no Hollywood ending for Jeff Gordon on Sunday. He led for a few laps early in the race, but faced with handling problems from the start he spent most of the day running outside the top ten. In the end he managed a late surge to finish sixth, but that was behind two of the other drivers competing for the title, including Kyle Busch, who won both the race and his first Sprint Cup championship. But then again, after all he has done for stock car racing the driver whom sponsor DuPont Paint tried to cast as the “Rainbow Warrior” early in his career didn’t need another title to validate his place in the sport.

His legion of fans, to whom he has always been just “Jeffy,” know what they have witnessed. In the persons of Busch, a Nevada native, or Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, another son of California and six-time champion, or of Danica Patrick, NASCAR and its fans know what Jeff Gordon accomplished.

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