The Easter weekend brings us the first of NASCAR’s breaks this season. Outside of the disappointment for being without racing for a weekend, this break gives us some time to reflect on what has happened in the season so far. 2016 has brought the close finishes, triumphant victories, and media scandals that NASCAR is known and loved for. Despite all of this excitement being maintained, one thing is has become clear: the nature of the sport caused Jeff Gordon’s retirement to leave a hole in NASCAR.
NASCAR isn’t like other sports. For instance, when this year’s NBA season ends and Kobe Bryant walks off the court for the last time, Lakers fans will still have a team to cheer for. Even when Formula 1 drivers retire, their team remains and the fans have a new name to cheer. When NASCAR drivers decide to call it quits, they take the entire identity of that car with them as they leave. The 24 car is still on the track, yet is completely unrecognizable with Chase Elliott behind the wheel. No trace of Jeff Gordon’s charisma, passion, and appeal have hung on to that car whatsoever.
Jeff Gordon’s rise to fame in NASCAR occurred alongside a generation of kids interests in fast cars and televised sports, creating a legion of dedicated fans who followed him through the constant jeering to four championships from 1995 to 2001. By the time we reached his final season in 2015, there was no one left who would dare jeer the man who arguably made NASCAR into what it is today. The entire season became Gordon’s victory lap, with seemingly every racetrack devoting some aspect of that weekend’s visit to solidifying his legend-status. This may have made the separation worse, as his finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November became a very emotional affair, particularly with the near-storybook ending of his being in the final four to contend for the Sprint Cup championship. After this seemingly endless parade of Jeff Gordon’s importance, 2016 arrived with him in the booth and rookie stripes on the 24. This new era of the sport has left fans like myself to wonder whether they were fans of NASCAR, or fans of Jeff Gordon.
I found myself spending the off-season debating who I should cheer for now that my favourite driver of roughly 17-18 years would no longer be competing. The obvious choice for many would be Chase Elliott, but his path to NASCAR was so completely opposite to Gordon’s that I couldn’t find myself latching onto it. Finally, I settled on a driver I had supported for years: Denny Hamlin. He has the background, as well as the aggressiveness, outspokenness, fun, and appeal that Gordon had. With my new driver ready to go, I tuned in to this year’s Daytona 500 trying to adjust to life after Jeff Gordon. By the final lap, my new driver was coming to the finish line, winning the race by mere inches. I was up off of the couch and yelling at the TV in a way that only sports can cause. After the trophy was lifted and the smoke had faded away, I found myself unfulfilled. My driver just won what is arguably the greatest achievement in motorsports, and I was excited throughout the whole ordeal, but when it was over it really was over. This was when I knew that although NASCAR will always be a passion of mine, Jeff Gordon was clearly what made it for me. This is an experience I’m sure is shared by NASCAR fans everywhere.
We are fortunate that our time with Jeff Gordon in NASCAR is not over, as he has taken the role of commentator for Fox Sports’ coverage of the sport. Anyone who has followed Gordon’s career knows that he is not one to take any challenge lightly, as he told Los Angeles Daily News “You never know what you’ll get in this scenario, but they realized I love racing and I want to put everything into this new stage in my life just like when I was a driver”. Having Gordon’s passion and input remain prevalent in every week’s presentation of NASCAR has made the transition from to the post-Gordon era of the sport a little less jarring, and unsurprisingly he proves to be a great source of insight in each and every race. It’s not to say that Jeff Gordon fans wouldn’t tune into NASCAR at all were he not the voice behind it, even with him off the track we are all still fans of racing to our core. No matter what his participation entails, Jeff Gordon will always be a part of NASCAR.
So as the sport roles on, we are left with what is undoubtedly one of the sport’s most exciting openings. With two photo finishes already in these first five races, there is still plenty to latch onto in NASCAR, whether you know who you’re cheering for or not. For Jeff Gordon, there is the new beginning of starting a new position in broadcasting which Darrell Waltrip interestingly compares to the new 24 driver’s challenges: “Jeff has brought a new excitement to our booth. I’ve been doing this for 16 years and he’s like young Blaney or Chase Elliott. He brings a fresh perspective”. For the rest of us, there is the new beginning of the sport without our idol. Jeff Gordon’s retirement has left a hole in NASCAR, but just like when he broke into the Cup series in 1993, someone will come around and fill that void someday.
We may have had all last year to say it, but I wanted to say it one more time before we go on with the rest of 2016: Thanks for everything, Jeff.
Main Photo: RICHMOND, VA – APRIL 26: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, races Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 26, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)