Monday, January 26, 2015

Musings From the Weekend: I Was Wrong About Jeff Gordon

After spending the better part of Saturday and Sunday watching the 24 Hour of Daytona, I need a break. Luckily there is two weeks until the Bathurst 12 Hours. This is the final week of January and by the time February gets here, we will be just over a month away from the start of the IndyCar season meaning I should get started on season previews. Only problem is how many teams will wait until the eleventh hour to complete their driver line-ups?n We know Dale Coyne won't announce his driver line-up until the morning of the season opener but how long will others wait? Either way, here is a run down of what got me thinking.

I Was Wrong About Jeff Gordon
When I got into NASCAR, I was eight years old and Jeff Gordon was "the bad guy." My uncle and grandfather, the two responsible for the motorsports-craze adult I am today, pulled for Tony Stewart because of the open-wheel background, because of his presence in IndyCar, though a divided IndyCar. At eight years old, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was the second coming. He was the future. He was going to continue to carry NASCAR to promise land on the path his father paved from the thicket.

Jeff Gordon was "the bad guy." He was too prim, too proper. He wasn't NASCAR. He wasn't the second coming. He wasn't the root of all evil. He was the college educated cousin at the family reunion telling stories about fancy dinners and golf outings while the rest spent their days and nights working on the farm in the elements with dirt under their fingernails. He made everyone else look elementary.

I was wrong about Jeff Gordon. I wish I hadn't grown up being taught Jeff Gordon was "the bad guy." To be frank, I have come to like Jeff Gordon. In the decade-plus since really getting into motorsports and NASCAR in particular, I have come to put the narrative of good vs. bad behind me. I have come to appreciate a driver for their talent, not for their portrayal in the media. I have realized that the idea that someone is or isn't NASCAR is wrong.

I think it was once I hit high school I started looking Jeff Gordon differently. I think I was outgrowing the script NASCAR media was writing. I didn't want to be told who was good and who was bad. I was tired of the constant changes and was relishing something I had just missed. Everything was becoming too contrived. From the Chase to the technical regulations. It wasn't what caught me. It was the races from the 1980s and 1990s I caught on ESPN Classic. NASCAR was a square peg trying to be jammed into the round hole that the major four North American sports leagues fitted into. NASCAR with assistance from ESPN were going to make themselves fit, even if it had to lose the edges that made it unique.

Gordon is one of the final links to the NASCAR I wish I had seen. Bobby Labonte is another link but a near decade of obscurity has buried the once champion. Seeing Gordon succeed is a victory for an era I just missed. That's part of the reason for the change in my mindset.

Last autumn, when looking at the facts and figures and seeing Jeff Gordon was at 92 victories in Cup, I thought he would hit the century mark, something only Richard Petty and David Pearson have accomplished. I thought he could average two victories a year for four more years. I thought he would continue until he was 47 or 48 years old and reach the feat because it would be something NASCAR could run with and make it a storyline over the course of a season. A Gordon from just before my time will have to return for 100 victories to become a reality. Winning eight races in a season isn't impossible but it's not likely.

Gordon doesn't need to hit triple-figures to validate his greatness. He did that by winning 40 races and three titles over four seasons. I would like to see him attempt a Truck race or two and become the 26th driver to win in all three national touring divisions.

I hope Gordon's retirement isn't from competing all together. He has a family and young kids and I don't blame him from wanting to spend more time with them but I hope he realize that he can still be there and can still go to a race track five or six times a year.  I want to see Gordon pursue all the events he could never do because of the suffocating NASCAR schedule. I want to see Gordon at Le Mans in a Corvette. I want to see him back on dirt at the Chili Bowl. I want to see attempt the Indianapolis 500.

I don't think he will do any of those events though. November 22, 2015 will mark the end of his 22nd season in Cup and 797th consecutive and final start (He should break Ricky Rudd's record for most consecutive Cup starts at New Hampshire on September 27, 2015. I bet those tickets will be worth a pretty penny). After Homestead, I doubt Jeff Gordon will ever compete in anything ever again and the end to one of the last great NASCAR drivers.

Forget Gordon, Hello Chilton
While Jeff Gordon will never run the Indianapolis 500 and won't even try to attempt to make the 100th running of the race (which is a massive opportunity he is wasting), guess who is planning on being their for the platinum jubilee? Former Formula One driver and record holder for most classified finishes in a Formula One rookie season Max Chilton.

Sure, Chilton didn't have the results in Formula One like fellow Brits Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button but he was with one of the poorer teams on the grid. That's not entirely his fault. He just went out there and did his thing. He just kept turning laps and bringing the car home. To finish first, one must first finish and Chilton proves he has step one down pat.

IndyCar fans should be really excited about the possibility of Chilton joining the grid, not get upset about his nationality or lack of results in Formula One (which once again, weren't entirely his fault). It's easy to hate on someone you have never met but why not embrace Chilton like one of your own children? It would be a great thing for Chilton for him to come over and see he is wanted, not looked down upon. Twenty-four British drivers have started the Indianapolis 500 and I would be enthused for Chilton if he were to become the 25th Brit to take the green flag in the Indianapolis 500.

It Takes Two Baby
Remember when endurance races, whether it was six, 12 or 24 hours use to feature driver line-ups of just two and not three, four or five? I would love to see an endurance race, length doesn't matter, created with the driver limit per car being two. I thought it was great when Jeroen Bleekemolen and Cooper MacNeil tag teamed the #79 Prospeed Competition Porsche at Le Mans last year after Bret Curtis was concussed and the team couldn't find a third driver. It wasn't the end of the world and since the duo no longer met the criteria for GTE-Am, they moved to GTE-Pro and ended up finishing fifth in class.

It could be a multi-class race with prototypes and GT cars, it could be an all-GT3 affair. I want a throwback race where drivers are running as long as they possibly can before getting out for their co-driver to do the same.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about what happened in the 24 Hours of Daytona but did you know...

S├ębastien Ogier won Rallye Monte-Carlo, the season opener for the 2015 World Rally Championship season.

Matt and Hugh Plumb won the Continental Tires SportCar Challenge season opener from Daytona driving the #13 Rum Bum Porsche 911. Spencer Pumpelly and Luis Rodriguez, Jr. won in the ST class in the #17 Rennsport One Porsche Cayman.

Trey Canard won the AMA Supercross race from Oakland.

Coming Up This Weekend
AMA Supercross heads to Anaheim for a third and final time in 2015.