Monday, September 12, 2011

Why I Love NASCAR: Jeff Gordon

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs

When Jeff Gordon burst onto my radar I was an entrenched Dale Earnhardt fan. Yet, despite my loyalty to only one driver, I liked Jeff Gordon. I may not have admitted it openly to a mixed group, but I liked Jeff Gordon, was intrigued by his non-Southern upbringing, and fascinated by his seemingly wiser-than-his years’ talent he exhibited. Best of all, Jeff Gordon was a peer; a driver only one year older than I. Throughout the years I fell in and out of fandom with Jeff Gordon, but I can still say, proudly and in front of any group, I really like him.

Many griped about Jeff Gordon when he appeared at NASCAR’s top tier. Young, from California, and a bit cocky with a polished way about him during interviews, he was the anti-NASCAR good ol’ boy driver. But Jeff Gordon brought something to the sport that was exciting, new, fresh, and polarizing. Within months he was proving his mettle, getting the fans talking and booing, and gaining respect in the garage. My driver, Dale Earnhardt, even showered attention and advice on the boy.

It wasn’t long before Jeff Gordon won races, and more races, and then championships. His partnership with Ray Evernham as crew chief was akin to the Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus maelstrom of today. Hated and reviled or loved and lauded, Jeff Gordon and his #24 Hendrick Chevrolet in the DuPont rainbow car was the talk of NASCAR.

And then, after three championships (1995, 1997, 1998) and a slew of wins, Ray Evernham left as crew chief and Jeff Gordon was left wondering if he really was the Golden Boy or if Evernham had taken the magic when he departed. With an interim crew chief, Brian Whitesell, there were more wins. But finally, after a period of adjustment (and more wins but no championship) Jeff Gordon was able to find his groove and chemistry with Robbie Loomis, long-time employee of Richard Petty Enterprises. The fourth championship was secured, landing him, at the time, third only to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for number of Cups won.

I wasn’t thrilled when Jeff Gordon and his pretty wife Brooke, who was quite the celebrity at the time as Mrs. Jeff Gordon making commercials and being visible at the track long before Delana Harvick and Samantha Busch, divorced. NASCAR had heretofore in my days of fandom not experienced anything quite as scandalous. But, by sheer numbers and magnitude Jeff Gordon seduced me to root for him. By his charisma, confidence, and consistency he wooed me to his camp. Not only was he around my age (he’s older by a year… and a few days) but he was damn good at what he did.

When my oldest child was able to start watching NASCAR and talking he declared the colorful car as his favorite – Jeff Gordon. He’s been a fan ever since and convinced his younger brother to be the same. After losing Dale Earnhardt and my way as a NASCAR fan for years it was comforting to have a familiar driver to root for again. I had always enjoyed Jeff Gordon and now can root for him unabashedly with my children. I even delight in the fact that Jeff Gordon seems happily remarried and is creating a darling family all of his own.

With his 85th all-time win this year and a very possible and even, dare I say, probable shot at winning his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup, I am cheered beyond belief to say, “I’ve been a fan of Jeff Gordon’s since he came to the NASCAR Cup series!” Let’s hear it for the “Drive for Five”! If the regular season was any indication of the magic Jeff Gordon can make with his crew chief Alan Gustafson, this could very well be a reality. Regardless, having Jeff Gordon in the Chase and, in general, on the circuit is yet another reason why I love NASCAR.

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