Until Sunday’s 500-mile race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, Jeff Gordon’s farewell season has been about what you’d expect from a fading star, even a supernova like he is. The 44-year-old Gordon, four-time NASCAR champion, has not been very competitive this year as the No. 3 driver – behind Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – for Hendrick Motorsports.
But Gordon, who among stock-car racing fans is second in popularity only to Junior, won at Martinsville for the ninth time in his 23-year career. This one earned him an entirely unexpected place in the Final Four at the end of the Chase: Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22.
Even as he was driving into the twilight and losing 38 consecutive races, Gordon was still fit, still working hard, still alert to possibilities, and he was ready when one presented itself.
With 47 laps remaining at Martinsville, Joey Logano was leading, which he’s been doing most of the time in this Sprint Cup season. He thought he was headed for his fourth consecutive win.
But then Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked Logano, as payback for Logano sending him for a spin three weeks earlier.
So Gordon inherited the lead, and held onto it.
As he basked in Victory Lane, his adoring fans acted like they’d won the lottery. Hours after the race the hundreds lingered in the darkness, cheering and chanting for Gordon, who responded by jumping into the grandstand and mingling.
“I went into the stands afterward because it was just non-stop while we were in Victory Lane, people just staying there,” Gordon said. “This is turning into an incredible storybook finish to this year, to this career.”
With the final chapter to be written in the Sprint Cup championship.
In an elimination system that’s roughly as complicated as the IRS code, four finalists will compete in stock-car’s Super Bowl near Miami.
Without getting too much into the mechanics of this – because I’d probably get it wrong – Gordon’s win at Martinsville puts him in the big one, with the next two races to determine the other three finalists. Those will come from a group of seven, among them Logano, Brad Keselowski, reigning NASCAR king Kevin Harvick and — I can’t help mentioning — Martin Truex Jr.
So it’s understandable that Gordon’s fans were ecstatic about their hero being the first one in.
“I don’t know what it feels like to be a rock star,” Gordon said, “but I think that’s about as close as it can get.”
The bizarre circumstances of the victory did not diminish it for Gordon, who was born in California but raced as a teenager in Indiana, where he was expected to become an Indy-car star. Instead, NASCAR wisely lured him, and Gordon has done much to break the sport out of its Dixie boundaries.
Stock-car racing still has its rough side. Drivers often bump others into the wall. But not when they’re out of contention, as Kenseth was after exiting the race earlier when he wrecked his car unintentionally.
After the race, Kenseth did not sound proud of himself. “You never like to be in these situations,” he said.
“They really stink, to be honest with you. But sometimes you get put in these spots and you have to try to keep respect in the garage area.”
He felt his crew expected revenge against Logano for spinning him out when they were battling for a lead. But as Logano will be the first to tell you, that was a very different circumstance. There was no race to be won Sunday by Kenseth, who was ten laps behind when he played bumper cars.
Logano called it “a cowardly move.”
While NASCAR emperor Brian France allows just about anything short of vehicular homicide, Kenseth may have drifted over the line, into sanctions.
“That’s a little bit different than two drivers really going after it coming out of Turn 4 for a win,” said NASCAR official Steve O’Donnell.
Bumping to win is a skill perfected by Keselowski, who happens to be a teammate of Logano for Roger Penske. Skilled as he is, Keselowski sometimes eliminates himself along with his target. Kenseth said his hit on Logano was partially inspired by Keselowski recently putting them both in the garage
Keselowski is NASCAR’s great instigator, his cherubic face notwithstanding. The analytics folks say he’s the best passer in NASCAR, but Keselowski’s opponents talk more about his bumping them out of races to win some for himself. He was the Sprint Cup champion in 2013.
Gordon, in contrast to Keselowski and Kenseth, drives with gentlemanly restraint. The world loves Gordon because he’s tenacious and aggressive when near the lead, but he won’t play Russian roulette and waste somebody’s car when he’s ten laps down. He wins the right way, and it’s wonderful to see such a spirited last hurrah.