When Richard Petty finished his storied NASCAR career at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992, a rookie named Jeff Gordon was getting his started that same day. Now, 24 years later (Petty finished 35th and Gordon 31st in Atlanta), Gordon is on the verge of wrapping up his career after Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Unlike Petty, Gordon can go out a champion. As one of four drivers in the Chase’s final round, Gordon has a shot at his fifth NASCAR championship. That would still fall short of Petty’s seven titles, and Gordon’s 93 victories is third on the all-time list behind Petty’s 200 and David Pearson’s 105.
Petty recently talked with reporters about Gordon’s career:
Q. Would you like to see Gordon win is fifth title?
A: He’s going out strong. I admire him for that part of it. I wouldn’t mind seeing him win the championship because he’s meant so much to NASCAR over the years.
Q. It’s pretty rare to see a driver go out and be as competitive as Gordon, isn’t it?
A: Yeah, it really is. We’ve had three or four to it, but nobody that’s been (to) a championship like Jeff has been, so I guess everybody has their own path and this happens to be his path, which is really, really a great deal.
Q. How much will NASCAR miss Gordon?
A: They won’t. No matter who you are, you’re not strong enough to carry the whole load. He’s been a strong leader all these years, but over a period of time the next crowd comes along and kind of fades them all out. Over a period of time you go away whether you want to or not.
Q. Do you remember anything about the day you two were in the same race?
A: I didn’t really pay that much attention. We were so busy. It was very last race we ran and he was just another driver. I had watched him come up through the Sportsman, or whatever they called it at that time, and really admired what he was accomplishing there and knew he was going to be pretty good it was just going to take a little bit of time to make it work.
Q. Can you imagine racing for the championship during your final race?
A: I imagine from a mindset deal it’s going be a lot different than what it was with me. I was just trying to make it to the last race and get through it and he’s still got a good chance to win the championship and he doesn’t have to win the race.
That’s one thing about the way they’ve got the point standings going now: he could run 10th and still win a championship.
He’s a good runner to be in the middle of the pack, in other words from fifth or sixth or seventh – somewhere like that – he’s really, really regular so it’s basically not what he does, it’s what the other guys are going to do and that’s where the championship will be determined.