Sunday, November 22, 2015

Cheering for Jeff Gordon One Last Time

Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirt and Scuffs
I’ve never seen a NASCAR Sprint Cup race without Jeff Gordon in the field.

I’m not alone, though. Anyone who started watching stock car racing’s premier series in the last 23 seasons hasn’t either, so when the green flag flies at Daytona in February, we’re all going to be entering a new era together.

Fortunately, the process of getting used to watching racing without his familiar No. 24 Axalta/AARP Drive to End Hunger Chevy on the track will be eased somewhat by his presence in the Fox broadcasting booth, but I have to tell you, the first time I see Chase Elliott and his NAPA livery with the Number 24 on it is going to be jarring.

Seeing the taciturn young man climb into the car that’s never really been associated with another driver will, quite frankly, be difficult.

Sure, the No. 24 started 1377 races, but the 93 trips to Victory Lane were all with Jeff Gordon behind the wheel. The only other car number at the top of the all-time wins list to be as closely associated with one driver is the No. 43, but Richard Petty didn’t pilot it to all of its 199 wins.

The No. 11 has the most all-time victories with 206, but that car’s roster reads like a Who’s Who of NASCAR with names like Fireball Roberts, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Bobby Allison.

So to me, and to probably every other NASCAR fan, No. 24 is, and always will be, Jeff Gordon's ride.

Oddly enough, a driver named Cecil Gordon out of Horse Shoe, NC, piloted the No. 24 for 17 seasons, but he never won a race. He led only 23 laps in 443 starts, so it’s unlikely anyone would ever confuse the two Gordons.

But I digress.

Jeff Gordon watches the 24 skydivers saluting him
during pre-race at Texas Motor Speedway, Nov. 8, 2011.
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud for Skirts and Scuffs
Recently I wrote about Jeff’s Iron Man status. When he straps in today at Homestead-Miami Speedway he will indeed write another line in the NASCAR record book. Not only will he have started more consecutive races than any other driver, with 797 green flags, but he’ll have done so without missing a start in his entire Cup career, in the same car number, for the same owner, and with essentially the same primary sponsor.

Talk about setting the bar high. The only other active driver who might be able to say the same thing at the end of his career is teammate Jimmie Johnson with 504 starts. Johnson, whose No. 48 is co-owned by Gordon, took over second place on the all-time consecutive starts list when Matt Kenseth’s suspension broke his streak of consecutive starts. It will take over eight seasons of racing for Jimmie to overtake Jeff’s record.

Early in my tenure with Skirts and Scuffs, I wrote about how Jeff changed the face of NASCAR and how he earned my loyalty as a fan by dominating the first race (Rockingham) and the first season (1998) I watched racing. Everything I wrote then is still true now. Only the stats have changed.

I was a Gordon fan for 12 years before I started writing for Skirts and Scuffs. I cheered as he won his third and fourth championships, as he set road course records and plate race records. I was embarrassed when the fans at Talladega pelted his car with beer cans when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a rain-shortened race. I shook my head at his ex-wife’s machinations during their ugly divorce, and had my guts ripped out when Kurt Busch prevailed in the 2004 championship over Gordon and Johnson. Every season the Drive For Five was still alive.

As a writer and editor for a NASCAR Citizen Journalists Media Corps site, I’m not supposed to show favoritism toward any one driver. For the most part that rule hasn’t been too difficult to follow. (I will admit that when seeing Jeff Gordon in person nine times while representing the site at Texas Motor Speedway, the fan in me squealed inwardly each and every time.)

Since 2011, I’ve not publicly called any driver “mine,” not even when Jeff announced his plans to retire, not when he advanced through each round of the Chase, and not when he won at Martinsville to put him in contention for the Sprint Cup he covets so dearly.

Today, though, I’ll beg forgiveness as for just this one race, I’m going to set aside that impartiality and cheer unashamedly for the driver who showed me how much fun watching NASCAR could be. For just this one race, I’m going to fly my fan flag high as Jeff Gordon makes his last start in Sprint Cup racing and competes for one final championship.

When the green flag flies, I'll probably be a bit misty-eyed. And win or lose, when the checkered flag falls, I'll probably shed a few tears. Okay, maybe more than a few.

Nothing against Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr., mind you. Each has his own compelling story. To me, though, today belongs to Jeff Gordon.

Just one more time. For the good times.


LJ Cloud, aka Lisa or Janine, lives in Houston and considers Texas Motor Speedway her home track. A fifth-generation Texan, she began watching NASCAR in 1997, followed by almost every other form of motorsports from F1 to lawnmower racing.
She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, beginning as a contributor, then became a media rep, photographer, and associate editor covering both NASCAR and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
LJ's other interests include photography, writing, reading, natural health, history, and genealogy. She works for Family Tree DNA, a company that performs DNA testing for genealogical research