On Sunday, Jeff Gordon will participate in his final NASCAR race before heading into retirement. Some are calling it the "end of an era". Well if that is true, it will be the end of a very boring era.
Gordon was the first great "tactical" racer in NASCAR. Unlike his legendary predecessors--Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough--Jeff Gordon did not bring a "checkers or wreckers" mentality to the track. If he had a great car, he made sure not to use it up, stayed out of trouble and brought home a win or a top five finish. If he didn't have a great car that day, Gordon was content to hang back and pick up as many points as possible toward the Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup title. Announcers came to call the strategy "big picture racing".
But I would challenge the biggest Jeff Gordon fan to list the most exciting victory in his career. I mean a race that had you talking the next day about spectacular passes or door-banging action. As a fan of the late Dale Earnhardt, I could spend an hour recapping such races--like the Pass On the Grass in Charlotte, the Spin To Win at Bristol or going from 18th to 1st in two laps to capture his last career win at Talledega. A "great" Jeff Gordon victory involves discussion of the time he stayed out when all the other leaders pitted to get gas and he had just enough fuel to make it to the finish--or that time he was fifth heading into the final pit stop and the "Rainbow Warriors" got him out in first and he held on to win--or the really thrilling time he got a great set of sticker tires and a wedge adjustment and was able to run the low groove to pull away late.
I'll admit Gordon was a trendsetter. He begat his even more boring Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmy Johnson--who has taken "staying out of trouble and taking care of your equipment" to six Cup titles--most of them in years that he did not win the most races on the circuit. Gordon is also responsible for the "nervous driver wife" cutaway that has become a staple of NASCAR broadcasts. His former wife Brooke was a model and made for good TV as she watched with crossed fingers in the pits. I did warm a bit to Gordon after she took him to the cleaners in their subsequent divorce.
Dale Earnhardt gave Jeff Gordon his nickname of "Wonderboy" and once toasted him at the NASCAR awards banquet with a glass of milk to poke fun at the success he enjoyed at an early age. But Dale, Sr also gave Wonderboy grudging respect for what he was able to accomplish--even if it was more technical and tactical than bold and fearless. And that is what most NASCAR fans will give Gordon on Sunday--even if he were to win at Homestead and capture an unexpected 5th Cup title--grudging respect. Just don't expect a lot of tears.
Oh, and hopefully Gordon fans can put away those ridiculous-looking rainbow pit crew jackets too.