Monday, November 23, 2015

One for the road in Homestead: Jeff Gordon leads a few laps, walks away

The race in Homestead—the Ford EcoBoost 400—started a little late yesterday, thanks to some typical South Florida rain. And that was maybe a good thing for those of us watching at home (I contemplated going, but frankly I wanted to watch the coverage as much as I wanted to watch the race). Since NBC had a lot of time to fill, almost an hour and half, they sent some time tracking Jeff Gordon's pre-race activities and by showing the driver intros in full (a first for any broadcast of a NASCAR race, I do believe).

The intros were, from my perspective, quite informative. As each driver was introduced and walked out on stage, there was generally some applause. The more popular drivers received quite a bit more, of course, drivers like Johnson and Earnhardt. And the last four introductions of the Chase finalists—Gordon, Harvick, Truex, and Kyle Busch—received a lot of applause, most especially Gordon (for anyone living on Mars, this was Gordon's final race). But apart from those guys, the driver who received the most applause by far was Matt Kenseth. And in contrast to that, both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were roundly booed by the crowd, especially Logano (and to his credit, Logano smiled and accepted it).

This all stemmed from a series of incidents between Kenseth and the Penske teammates Logano and Keselowski, which culminated in Kenseth intentionally wrecking then-race leader Logano at Martinsville (the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500), effectively eliminating Logano from the Chase. I could go all fanboy here and detail the series of obnoxious acts by the pair of Penske drivers that created this situation, but it's enough to simply note the applause Kenseth received from the fans, both at Martinsville when he wrecked Logano and at Homestead when he returned from his two race suspension. But the more significant consequence here is probably that Kenseth opened a door at Martinsville for other drivers, and Jeff Gordon stepped through it, winning the race and securing a spot in the final four at Homestead.

This is what Homestead was really all about: Jeff Gordon's final race in the Sprint Cup series, his final race for Hendrick Motorsports in the legendary 24 car. Kyle Busch won the race and the Chase, it is true. And his story, coming back from a broken leg to qualify for the Chase and then actually winning it, is a great one. But it's going to be forever overshadowed by Gordon's presence.

And that's as it should be. There are a lot of stories out there now on Gordon, a lot of retrospectives on his incredible career. Gordon has been racing the 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports since 1993, since he was only twenty two years old. And he's stepping down when he could still race at a very high level, at the still not particularly old age (in NASCAR years) of 44. For comparison, Kevin Harvick is 39, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is 41, Matt Kenseth is 43, and Tony Stewart (who will retire after next year) is also 44. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was 49 when he was injured and later died from an accident at the Daytona 500. Bill Elliott's final Daytona race was in 2012, when he was 56. And Richard Petty formally retired at the age of 55 in 1992.

Gordon seems like an old-timer now because he started at such an incredibly young age. His teammate Jimmy Johnson (who is 40, by the way) started in the Sprint Cup (Winston Cup and Nextel Cup, depending on the year) series in 2002 at the age of 26, when Gordon was just 30 but had been racing in the Sprint Cup full-time for almost a decade. And by then, Gordon had already won everything there was to win. Yet, when people talk about who the greatest NASCAR driver of all time is, Gordon is rarely given top billing.

It's an interesting thing, the "best ever" conversation. Gordon peaked very early. And when he peaked, he did so largely at the expense of Dale Earnheardt, Sr., one of the drivers routinely labeled as "the best ever" (along with Richard Petty).  Gordon's numbers are probably never going to get him that "best ever" moniker, though. And that's partly because of his teammate Jimmy Johnson, no doubt (who may end up supplanting both the Intimidator and the King, before he finally steps down).

Yet, in my mind, Gordon is the best ever. For me, it's not even close. And it's not so much because of the races he won as it because of the races he ran, one after another, year after year. He's started 797 consecutive Sprint Cup races. His next closest still active competitors in this regard are Johnson and Ryan Newman, both with 504 consecutive starts. And he's been a factor in the great majority of those races. Gordon was even a factor yesterday, leading nine laps early on (to the unmitigated joy of the crowd) and ultimately finishing sixth.

But the competition he has been facing for the last decade or so is unparalleled in the history of NASCAR in my opinion. Drivers like Johnson, Harvick. Logano, the Busch brothers, Carl Edwards, and Denny Hamlin are all capable of winning every race they enter. And then there are a bunch of up and comers, as well. The Sprint Cup series has never been so competitive. The great irony here is obvious: Jeff Gordon made this happen.

Jeff Gordon changed the NASCAR landscape from the moment he jumped in a stock car in 1991. He was an outsider then, a California boy who grew up on open-wheeled racing. Many might have supposed his future would be in F1 or Indycar racing. But Gordon took to stock car racing like a fish to water, much to the consternation of a good chunk of the NASCAR crowd who had borne and raised in stock cars (including Earnhardt, Sr. and Petty, by the way). He was an instant hero for NASCAR novices (like me, really) and his youth and looks attracted new fans and new sponsors to NASCAR almost immediately.

Fast forward to the twenty first century. NASCAR has become one of the most popular sports in the country. The Indycar car series is now but an afterthought, by and large. The drivers in NASCAR come from all over, are no longer products of just the South, and they are cultivated, scouted, and trained like other professional athletes. Every owner out there is constantly looking for the next Jeff Gordon. No longer do young drivers have to earn their rides by proving themselves for years and years in lower tier stock races. If they can win, they can drive. Next year, the 24 car will be driven by Chase Elliott, who is—wait for it—nineteen years old (and the son of Bill Elliott). Granted, there's the old south/traditional NASCAR connection there, but no 19 year old would have ever gotten a top ride prior to the arrival of Jeff Gordon.

Then there's the money in NASCAR. Top drivers are earning millions. They're in national ad campaigns. They're stars wherever they go. The net worth of Hendrick Motorsports is in excess of $350 million. Joe Gibbs Racing is worth over $200 million. All told, the top teams are pulling down close to $1 billion in revenue every year. And that revenue is a consequence of the mass-market appeal NASCAR has achieved in the past couple of decades, something it would have never been able to do without Jeff Gordon.

Finally, there is the actually quality of the competition in the actual races. Because of the money, because of the now wide-open range of drivers, races are more entertaining these days than they have ever been, especially given the fact that there are fewer fiery crashes (a good thing). The drivers are looking for an edge on every single lap, the competition is so tight. There are no more Bill Elliotts out there, able to drop to the bottom of the track and just pass the field like they were standing still. There can't be. And again, this is a change that Jeff Gordon wrought, probably to his own detriment in terms of wins.

Jeff Gordon is the best ever because there will never be another Jeff Gordon. There can't be. He changed NASCAR in so many ways (and yeah, I know there are some who don't like all of these changes) that his legacy is the current state of NASCAR, itself. He's why people started watching for the first time in the nineties, why they kept watching through yesterday. He's why NBC spent billions of dollars to secure the broadcasting rights for the Sprint Cup and he's why NASCAR teams are worth millions and millions of dollars. So, thanks Jeff. Good job.

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