There was a time when Jeff Gordon couldn’t walk from his car into the local supermarket without getting booed. In fact, I’m surprised there wasn’t a Matt Schaub-like incident, this season’s quarterback scapegoat from the NFL’s Houston Texans who was threatened by hooligans at his home. Such was life for NASCAR’s dominant driver of the 1990s, his metro, New York-style life and team a stark contrast from main rival, good ol’ boy Intimidator Dale Earnhardt. “Old school” Southern roots met “new school” Fortune 500 money — and no one could seem to stand it once the fancy suits and rainbow sponsorship of DuPont won out.
But age, along with stripping success, has its way of making even the most hated superstar human. Sunday, as Gordon signed autographs for fans in the stands after his 88th career Cup victory, it was clear that years of spite had been replaced by sentimentality. Here they were, putting in overtime after appreciating one of the top-5 drivers in NASCAR history drive masterfully to the front, once more, before their very eyes. It’s just the seventh victory for Gordon in the last six years; there once was a time he’d grab 13 in a single season. Even the little kids sticking around had an inkling that, at age 42, the ghost of Father Time has inched ever closer for Gordon.
There’s no telling how much longer “Wonder Boy” will continue to drive now that he’s “Wonder Gray,” fully settled as a multi-millionaire with a wife and two loving kids. Gordon seems to think it’ll be age 45, maybe 50, before he hangs it up. The success of Chase Elliott in the Truck Series while employed by Hendrick Motorsports — along with long-term contracts signed by Gordon’s three teammates – make you think otherwise. My personal feel, if there’s no injury, is that come 2015 … 2016 at the latest … one of the sport’s all-time greats will transition from the driver’s seat to the rocking chair.
So yes, Sunday’s win at Martinsville deserved the standing ovation it got. I remember Darrell Waltrip’s final win, at Darlington in ’92, during a three-win season where he finished top 10 in points. Richard Petty’s final victory, a scorching July in Daytona back in 1984 also came during a year of moderate success. The fall, when it comes for these record-setting athletes, comes quicker than you ever realize at the time. 88 wins and counting for Gordon … so everyone hopes. Because you never know at this point in a career whether a trip to Victory Lane is the last.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Gordon’s return to relevance
The No. 24 team’s return to the top after nearly a year-long absence isn’t one of those “built in a day” type of stories. It’s a big surprise that Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson are even still together considering their Chase near-miss. Consider 2005, Gordon’s lone championship miss. Crew chief Robbie Loomis got the axe. You’d have to think, with the pressure revolving around the sport’s most successful active driver, a change was at least discussed after Richmond’s surprising near-miss.
“What happened there, it changes your perspective a little bit,” said Gustafson. “It is a special chance to compete for a championship at this level, and you don't know how many of those you're going to get. And for me, when we didn't have it for a couple days, that was one of the most terrible feelings in the world.”
Luckily for them NASCAR changed course, which leaves their participation paired with an asterisk. But as the 13th team in the Chase field, Gustafson, Gordon and company have since made the most of the opportunity. It’s a surge the duo claim started with a heart-to-heart after Loudon in July in which a 10th-place finish felt like 35th.
“It kind of was a bonding moment for us,” said Gordon, who claimed the running theme was to stay positive in the midst of bad luck, Gen-6 growing pains and others running circles around them. “It smacked (me) around a little bit to where I was like, ‘You know what, I've got to go and work as hard as I can, give these guys everything I've got because they're working their butts off, and let's pull it together.’”
The results have been steady since. Gordon’s drive to the front at Martinsville, in fact, was the perfect example of late-race chemistry many thought would be automatic with this duo. With no finish worse than 15th over the course of the postseason they’re now up to third in points, 27 behind the two championship leaders in Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Is that close enough to make a run? We’re not sure yet. But the way in which this 10-race playoff has unfolded, Gordon is now front and center in everyone’s mind for the first time in quite awhile.
SECOND GEAR: Kenseth’s surprising shift to offense I admit it; on Friday on FOX Sports 1, I counted Kenseth out of the Chase, to everyone’s surprise. I still feel I had good reason to; the last three weeks, this team’s battled ill-handling cars to the point it had to make major chassis adjustments in-race at Talladega. Talladega! Let’s face it, typically your grandmother can drive there at 200 mph without complaining about the car getting loose.
So Kenseth’s punch back at Martinsville, one week after losing the point lead, was as unexpected as it was gutsy. In the first 13 years of his career, he’d led only 169 laps at the short track (and 90 had come this spring). What happened Sunday? He led a race-high 202, at one of his worst tracks while forcing Jimmie Johnson to the ropes. That’s right; crew chief Chad Knaus made a mid-race pit stop for tires on the No. 48 in part because their rival was seemingly in position to outpoint him.
Kenseth did exactly that, and would have won without a shocking, 77-lap green-flag stint to the checkered flag in a race where there were 17 cautions. The long-run setup was never there for the No. 20, but the driver held on for second on a day that, on paper, he should have been sitting 20th.
“Gosh, for how Martinsville has been for me, how could you not be pleased,” he said, with Johnson’s fifth-place finish bringing their Chase war back to a virtual tie. “I really felt like if we came out of here in the lead, or tied or close to it, I really felt like we got what it takes to race in the last three races.”
In my view, Kenseth certainly does. It was the race of the Chase — enough to swing momentum towards the No. 20 team, king of the intermediates, heading to a 1.5-mile oval in Texas. You think I’m going to make the same mistake twice?
THIRD GEAR: A few shot in the arm
For those not in title contention, there’s still a lot to race for. Sunday showcased a few names we haven’t seen near the front in awhile, but who need to end 2013 on a high note. There was Clint Bowyer, still winless and reeling from his role in “Spingate.” Leading 60 laps — his most since Richmond — it looked like he might even win the race for a bit before fading to a third-place finish. Easily his best run of the Chase, he now has an outside shot at ending the year inside the top 5 in series points.
For Denny Hamlin, it’s a slow build back towards the success we’ve been accustomed to seeing. The No. 11 team now has two top-10 finishes in the last three races after a strong seventh at one of his home state tracks. With heavy damage from an early wreck, the car looked more like a junkyard piece than one capable of contending. The fact he and crew chief Darian Grubb could work around it, keeping their FedEx Toyota near the front, showcases a rebuilding chemistry that will in all likelihood keep them together come 2014.
Other strong performances Sunday included Juan Pablo Montoya and Danica Patrick, 13th and 17th respectively, two open-wheelers still searching for NASCAR consistency. At least Patrick will get another shot; Montoya, with three races left is going all-out for that first victory on an oval track before leaving the Cup Series. The stats say he probably won’t get it, but he’ll be worth watching with nothing to lose over the next three weeks.
FOURTH GEAR: Temper, temper …Martinsville produced a Bristol-like series of temper tantrums this weekend. Saturday was the setup, with Kevin Harvick tearing to shreds car owner Richard Childress’ grandsons on national television following a Truck Series race. That was, of course, after a wreck with Ty Dillon that ended with contact on pit road, an orange sledgehammer being thrown at Harvick by a crewman and thousands of dollars’ worth of mangled sheet metal.
Sunday, those 17 caution flags brought out the anger in seemingly everyone. Greg Biffle jerked Jimmie Johnson aside following an on-camera interview and cussed the championship contender out for contact he felt loosened his rear bumper. Jeff Burton spent the day trying to run up to Carl Edwards so he could spin him out. Kasey Kahne’s radio was filled with ugly chatter about Landon Cassill. And so it goes … the beauty of NASCAR’s smallest speedway is that it leaves everyone emotional. And, whether they admit it or not, stock car racing fans eat up the drama like breakfast cereal.
For the record, the feud that bears watching is Harvick vs. Childress. Their title chances seemingly toast, Harvick issued an apology on Sunday but it clearly was not aimed at said car owner or grandsons. Will a random engine failure happen to the No. 29 the final three weeks? Someone better go to Hallmark and buy a really nice card for their employer.
Highly-touted Kyle Larson now has two Cup starts and two DNFs after his engine blew at Martinsville. Both Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, his employer who prepared the car, and sponsor Target were hoping the driver would collect far more experience for next year’s rookie bid. Don’t be surprised if you see him pop up again before the season is out. … Ken Schrader, a short-track legend and former Hendrick Motorsports driver, will retire from Cup racing next month at Homestead driving the underfunded No. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford. Schrader, now 58, has 762 career starts and four career wins in the series. However, the last victory came in 1991 and he hasn’t had a full-time ride since ’06. … Could Mark Martin be joining Schrader on the retirement train? As I’ve mentioned before, rumors keep growing the 54-year-old will step back and be a consultant following the 2013 season and his stint at Stewart-Haas Racing that have done nothing to quiet things down. Involved in a wreck Sunday, running smack into Kurt Busch’s No. 78, Martin scored his second finish outside the top 35 in the last three weeks. Without a top-5 finish since February’s Daytona 500, he’s poised for his worst season on paper, full or part-time, since returning to the Cup Series in 1988. … A Truck Series win by Darrell Wallace Jr., the first in NASCAR’s top three series by an African-American since 1963, couldn’t have come at a better time. What no one wants you to talk about is that Kyle Busch Motorsports — Wallace’s employer — just laid off 10 employees and sponsorship is questionable for 2014. Who knows if Wallace will have a full-time ride without KBM? Luckily, the victory should ensure some type of spot for him within a JGR-backed development ride next season.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter:@NASCARBowles