By David G. Firestone
On November 15, 1992, the Sprint Cup changed forever. The event was the Hooters 500. Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Kyle Petty, Harry Gant, and Mark Martin were all battling it out for the Championship in what has been called the greatest series finale in NASCAR history. Richard Petty, The King of NASCAR, the greatest driver in Sprint Cup history, the greatest athlete to use #43 ended his career with that race with a crash, fire and a 35th place finish. At the end of the race, Kulwicki became championship, Petty drove around the track one last time to honor the fans, and Elliott won the race.
Something that was overlooked in all of that would change the face of NASCAR forever. On that day, A fresh-faced 21 year old made his first start in the Sprint Cup. 23 years, 92 race wins, and 4 championships later, Jeff Gordon has established himself as a true legend in auto racing. His 2015 season will be his last full-time season in NASCAR. This announcement came this week. This is not an easy decision, Gordon loves what he does, but all careers must come to an end.
I had a feeling that he would run one last full season in 2015 for the sole reason that he wants the Iron Man award. That would put him in line with some hardcore guys. Richard Petty had 513 consecutive starts from 1971-1989. In 1996, Terry Labonte started his 514th race at North Wilksboro in a silver Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Chevy SS, a race which he won. Labonte would end up starting 656 consecutive races. In 2002, Ricky Rudd would start his 657th race, the 2002 Coca Cola 600. Though he only finished 4th, he would claim the title of Iron Man that night. If all goes well, Gordon will secure the Iron Man record at the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire, and finish his career with 796 consecutive starts. He wants that award.
I also am looking forward to the Quicken Loans Race For Heroes 500 at Phoenix, because that race will take place on November 15, 2015, exactly 23 years after his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Start. Then will come on November 23, 2015, the end of an era. It’s always sad when a legend retires. Basketball was never the same when Michael Jordan finally retired. Baseball wasn’t the same when Babe Ruth retired, and hockey wasn’t the same after Wayne Gretzky retired. NASCAR really wasn’t the same when Richard Petty retired, and won’t be the same when Jeff Gordon retires.
Jeff Gordon has referred to retirement as “the r-word” and refuses to use it to discuss his current situation. Certainly it seems that he will run in races in the future, just not full-time. It’s also more or less confirmed that he will become a TV analyst, as this was announced by FOX Sports for Xfinity Series broadcasts as part of a series or rotating analysts including Brad Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick. Could this become a permanent role? It seems likely, Gordon is really good in front of the camera, and he would be a great choice, at least in my opinion.
Jeff Gordon has had a great career, and while I, as well as many fans will miss him behind the wheel. That #24 Chevy just won’t have the same allure, the same mystique with another driver behind the wheel. I wish Jeff the best of luck with his future endeavors.
Next week, I will be taking a vacation to Arizona, so I won’t update the tracker or issue paint scheme grades. I’ll have something ready to go on Friday, and I may do something on Monday, but I haven’t decided yet. I’ll return to normal once I get home.