ThatsRacin

NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon set for last race at home track in Charlotte

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

On a summer day in 1990, a promising young race-car driver named Jeff Gordon and his mother were driving to Charlotte from Rockingham to catch a flight home to Indiana.

They had come from Rockingham Speedway, where Gordon participated in the renowned Buck Baker Racing School. On the way to the airport, they made a quick detour.

With Gordon’s mother, Carol, at the wheel because her 18-year-old son was still too young to rent a car or book a hotel room, they swung past Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord.

“I was completely blown away,” said Jeff Gordon. “I’d heard so much about it, and it was something I really wanted to see.

“I’d seen (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) before, and that was the only other track I could compare it to. Charlotte looked so futuristic, the way it was designed.

“It just whetted my appetite for wanting to do this.”

Twenty-five years later, Gordon, 44, is wrapping up a Hall-of-Fame worthy career at NASCAR’s highest level. He will retire from driving after November’s season finale at Homestead, Fla.

The Bank of America 500 will be his final race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The race was supposed to be held Saturday, but rain delayed it until 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

The track became a special place for Gordon as his career progressed. Of his 92 career points victories – third on NASCAR’s all-time list – five have come at CMS. He has also won three all-star races at Charlotte, and nine Cup poles.

The track was the site of his first Cup series victory, just four years after that side trip from Rockingham.

The bottom line

The 92 victories and four Cup championships are only a slice of what Gordon has meant to NASCAR. One of the first truly great drivers not to come from NASCAR’s traditional Southern roots, Gordon was the bridge from the sport’s good ol’ boy roots to a national audience.

Gordon’s first Cup race, at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992, will always be better remembered as the last of seven-time champion Richard Petty’s career. Gordon crashed exactly halfway through (on Lap 164 of 328) and finished 31st.

But success came quickly, on and off the track. Gordon moved easily in corporate and sponsorship circles, helping the sport expand its base.

“He has done more to elevate this sport than anyone I can think of,” said Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, for whom Gordon has driven his entire Cup career. “He was on ‘Regis and Kelly.’ He was on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the cover of Fortune (magazine). He took our sport from regional to national to international. He opened so many doors.

“When history looks back, you’re going to see that Jeff was the face of the new NASCAR.”

Much of Gordon’s early success came racing against NASCAR legends such as seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt. And as Gordon beat them, he added to their bottom line.

“Earnhardt was a huge part of the sport,” Kevin Harvick, NASCAR’s defending champion, said. “But ... the leap that Earnhardt’s career took and – his wealth and the sponsors and the things that he had – a lot of that had to do with Jeff Gordon.”

The winning call

Gordon quickly established himself as a force at Charlotte. He finished second in his first Coca-Cola 600, in 1993, and won the pole at the track that October. By the time the 1994 season, his second as a full-time driver, began, Gordon felt ready to win.

“I wasn’t feeling any real pressure to win,” he said. “But we’d been close a few times and we needed to figure out how to close races out.”

When the Coca-Cola 600 rolled around that May, Gordon was still winless. He had won the pole, but Rusty Wallace was dominant for much of the race, looking to be in excellent shape to win when he pitted on Lap 375 (of 400).

Wallace used a safe strategy, changing all four tires in a stop that would last 17.22 seconds.

On Lap 381, Gordon came in with a different strategy. Instead of taking four tires, crew chief Ray Evernham elected to change just the two right-side tires.

The stop took 8.65 seconds. Gordon took the lead when Ricky Rudd stopped for gas, and Gordon crossed the finish line 3.91 seconds ahead of Wallace.

“Those last few laps, I was just trying to keep from hitting the wall because of all the tears in my face,” Gordon said after the race. “The white-flag lap (last lap), I choked up and completely lost it.”

Evernham’s call made Gordon a winner for the first time and cemented Evernham’s place as one of the top crew chiefs in the sport.

“A lot of people think it was a game of chance, but it was something very calculated,” Evernham said this week. “We knew exactly where we were at, how fast we could go and for how long on two tires. It came down to simple math.”

Gordon led four times for 16 laps, including the final nine, and won $196,500.

According to a Tom Higgins story in the next day’s Observer, speedway chairman Bruton Smith added $3,500 from his pocket to make the payoff $200,000.

Gordon immediately gave the extra cash “to the guys who made it happen, the pit crew,” handing the bills to Evernham.

Gordon’s career skyrocketed from there. Forming a formidable team with Evernham, Gordon would drive his No. 24 Chevy to victory at the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis later that summer.

Driving in an era that included veteran stars such as Earnhardt, Wallace and Bill Elliott, Gordon won the first of his four championships in 1995.

Home track

There is something else about Charlotte Motor Speedway that makes it unique to Gordon: It has become his home track.

Gordon has settled in Charlotte with his wife, Ingrid, and children Ella and Leo.

“I love how you can enjoy all four seasons in Charlotte,” Gordon said. “It’s a beautiful, clean, safe town to live in. I’m glad my kids go to school here.”

In 2016, Gordon will move to the television booth, where he will provide commentary for Fox Sports. Chase Elliott, the son of Gordon’s former rival Bill Elliott, will take his seat in the No. 24 Chevy.

“He’s going to be awesome on TV,” Hendrick said. “And I hope he can help us here at Hendrick (Motorsports), too. But it’s going to be a real shock when I walk into the garage at Daytona in February, not seeing his name on the top of that 24 car’s door.”

Jeff Gordon at Charlotte Motor Speedway

NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon’s accomplishments at Charlotte Motor Speedway:

▪  Three All-Star race victories (1995, 1997, 2001)

▪  Three Coca-Cola 600 victories (1994, 1997, 1998)

▪  Two Bank of America 500 victories (1999, 2007)

▪  Eight Cup poles (third all-time behind David Pearson and Ryan Newman)

▪  Two Xfinity series victories (sweep in 1992)

▪  Career winnings of more than $8.7 million

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