Thanks to a late-season victory, Jeff Gordon heads to Homestead on Sunday with a chance to add one more accomplishment to his dossier in the final race of his career.
Nostalgia is a powerful force. If you need a reminder, just head to your favorite social network to see how many of your best friends (and favorite brands) are sharing old photos for #ThrowbackThursday. It’s why nothing is easier to greenlight than a familiar franchise. Fuller House? Absolutely. Mulder and Scully are back? Sure, why not. “Chewie, we’re home”? Just go ahead and take my money. It’s why we hold onto yearbooks, and ticket stubs, and the old mix CD you burned when you were going through some really heavy stuff back in college.
There’s a very basic human need to occasionally wrap ourselves in the comfort of the past. We romanticize the setting, the scenery, the characters from way back when, and we’d love nothing more than to go back and savor some of those standout moments, with the benefit of all the wisdom we’d like to think we’ve accumulated since.
In related news, Jeff Gordon is “Wonderboy” no more. He’s 44 now, and a father to two adorable children. A few years ago, when he regrew his mustache to fulfill a promise to his team, it was speckled with more than a little grey. In recent seasons, he’s dealt with recurring back pain, but it didn’t stop him from passing Ricky Rudd as NASCAR’s “Iron Man” in September.
Sunday will mark his 797th start in the Sprint Cup Series, all of them consecutive. He’s literally sponsored by AARP now, and his commercials for the group demonstrate that even in this, his final season before retirement, his sense of humor hasn’t abandoned him.
So yeah, this is not the same Jeff Gordon, and that’s also the case now when he climbs into the No. 24 car.
Back in the mid-1990s, when Gordon first entered NASCAR, he was a revelation. By his second full season, he was winning races. By his third, he was a champion of the sport. Between 1995 to 1998, he took home three titles, and won approximately one out of every three races he entered. Under crew chief Ray Evernham, Gordon and the “Rainbow Warriors” quite literally redefined the parameters of what was possible in the sport’s modern era.
No one thought, in an age of big budgets, tight parameters, and a robust rule book that one group could so completely dominate a field of 43 cars, but Gordon’s bunch did exactly that — piling up trophies, lapping the competition, building cars so obscenely dominant that NASCAR made sure they would never return to the track again.
Those days long are over. Evernham departed years ago, and while Gordon added one more championship since, he’s never recaptured that same level of supremacy. The No. 24 team has been on its “Drive For Five” titles for more than a decade now, and has been unable to close the deal. In the meantime, Jimmie Johnson — a protege of sorts who Gordon helped bring to Hendrick Motorsports as a teammate — has won six Sprint Cups, and become the new face of the sport. Gordon has stayed around, stayed competitive, continued to win races, and serves as an elder statesman in the garage — a figure of undeniable talent and respect.
This is a long way from Gordon’s heyday, when he crossed over strongly into mainstream popularity. He was the guy who emerged from what had always been seen as a “niche sport,” and look perfectly at home alongside Griffey, Gretzky and Jordan. Or, for that matter, standing next to Tom Cruise and teaching him a thing or two about racing. Gordon wasn’t just a race car driver, he was a star, the likes of which the sport hasn’t seen since.
Gordon remains the only racecar driver to host Saturday Night Live, an experience he revisited in a fantastic profile, published this week, by Matt Crossman for Bleacher Report. And that evening, when the sport’s biggest star took the stage at 30 Rock, and entertained the entire country for 90 minutes or so, may very well have been NASCAR’s pinnacle in popular culture.
Jeff Gordon was the right man, at the right time, to bring stock car racing to a new place in the country’s consciousness, to take what the gold ol’ boys had built down south, bring over a few more television cameras, and turn it into a truly national sport. An unknown kid from California, originally trained to be an IndyCar driver, made all that possible. He was savvy and handsome and charismatic, sure, but he also was so damn talented behind the wheel. Only the very greatest in their field get the opportunity to bring it to new heights, and racing had been waiting for someone like Gordon: Calm, cool and comfortable, inside the car and out.
NASCAR itself got in on the nostalgia trend earlier this year, when the Sprint Cup Series’ “Southern 500” at Darlington Raceway returned to its traditional date on Labor Day weekend. Cars were outfitted in “throwback” paint schemes that harkened back to the days of Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and other past greats. The track itself got in on the fun, with classic signage and advertising. Even the broadcast partner played along, as NBC broke out its old graphics packages and theme music, and welcomed beloved broadcasters Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett back to the booth to call a portion of the race. All in all, it was a clever and well-received concept for a sport eager to celebrate its roots.
It’s easy to understand why NASCAR, like so many of us, would want to take a wistful look back. Attendance continues to decline, TV ratings are down, and there’s little doubt that the sport struggles to recapture the mainstream “buzz” it commanded years ago when Earnhardt, Elliott, Labonte and, yes, Gordon, were all battling fender to fender for the lead. For those who love the sport deeply and those who only check in occasionally, there is a feeling that, maybe, the pinnacle has come and gone.
Still, you can’t have a peak without a slope, and the sport remains the most popular form of racing in the country by a wide margin. Tens of thousands still make their way to the traveling circus every weekend (although there is no doubt that a younger, more diverse fanbase would be welcome.) As such, NASCAR plots its future with an eye on trying to recapture the energy and the excitement of the glory days, and wouldn’t you know it, those efforts just so happened to push Jeff Gordon back to the sport’s forefront.
The sport’s most recent “Chase Grid” playoff format, introduced last year, puts a premium on late-season performance, so — with just a single win this season, three weeks ago in Martinsville — Gordon clinched his place in Sunday’s championship finale. He reacted, appropriately enough, like a young kid experiencing victory lane for the very first time.
On paper, he’s the weakest of the four contenders for this season’s title. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. all have led more laps, accumulated more top-fives, put together a better average finish. The days of Gordon overwhelming rivals, leaving them to vie for second place, are long gone. This weekend, he’ll be the aging underdog, a role in which he has very little experience. Gordon doesn’t have to recapture the past, though. He just has to find a way to be the best car for 400 miles at Homestead Miami Speedway. And if he can do it, what a delightful rush of nostalgia it will be.
So go find your Sony Walkmen, your POGs, your AOL Trial CD-ROMs. It’s the '90s all over again! The Jeff Gordon franchise gets one last exciting episode.