Jeff Gordon’s Career Closes Just Short of Storybook Ending


In his final race as a full-time Sprint Cup driver, Jeff Gordon fell just short in his pursuit of a storybook ending, and his fifth championship.

Certain athletes define eras in sports, and that is especially true in NASCAR. Richard Petty, the “King”, dominated the 1960’s and 1970’s, winning seven championships at NASCAR’s highest level. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s belonged to the “Intimidator”, Dale Earnhardt, the man who bumped and traded paint on his way to seven championships, trying Petty’s record.

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From the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, Jeff Gordon was the man. He won four championships in a seven-year span from 1995 to 2001, and won 93 Sprint Cup races, the third-most in history, and the most in what is considered the modern era (from 1972 to present). The clean-cut, baby-faced, California kid Gordon, who was nicknamed “Wonder Boy”, and the “Rainbow Warrior” because of some of the early paint schemes on the number-24 machine, was a big shift in personality from the mustache-wearing, tobacco-spitting, Southern boys that had always been so popular in the sport.

On Sunday, Jeff Gordon’s illustrious career as a full-time driver came to a close, and it nearly ended in storybook fashion. Gordon entered the season’s final race, the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway as one of four drivers still in contention for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, along with Martin Truex, Jr, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. The four drivers, all competing for the same prize, kept close ties on each other throughout the 267-lap race that ran into the dark of the Florida night.

The race began under the bright skies deep in southern Florida, and for a few laps early in the race, it looked as if Gordon had a chance to claim his fifth championship in the final race with his famed  24 car. Gordon’s car was fast, pulling ahead of his competitors like he used to in his prime. He led nine laps in the early going, battling back and forth with each of the three drivers who were also trying to claim a championship.

But as the sun began to set on the track, as well as Gordon’s career, his car began to get away from him, and he slipped away from the rest of the championship hopefuls. Gordon still found himself running in or very near the top-10, but as Busch and Harvick battled each other within the top five, Gordon just wasn’t fast enough.

As the race wore on, Busch and Harvick separated themselves from Gordon and Truex. In the end, it came down to Busch, in search of his first Sprint Cup championship, trying to hold off Harvick, looking to win his second consecutive championship. The battle ensued until the end of the race, but after a late-race debris caution, Busch pulled ahead of everyone and ran away with a race win, and championship win as well, while Harvick could do nothing and watch Busch’s back bumper shrink away from second place. Gordon would finish sixth while Truex limped home 12th.

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  • There would be no storybook ending for Gordon, but there was one for Busch. The younger Buch brother broke his leg before the Daytona 500 in February, and subsequently missed the first 11 races of the season. With the help of a medical waiver, Busch won four races (including three in a row, at one point) leading up to the Chase, and snuck into the top-30 in points to claim a spot in the NASCAR’s version of playoffs, the Chase. His final win of the season was the most important, not just of the season, but of his career. He became the first driver since Petty in 1972 to win the championship without running every race.

    Gordon, in his prime, was one of the very best the sport has ever seen. From 1996 to 1998, he won at least 10 races in every season, including 13 in 1998. He won two championships in that span. He was the quickest driver to reach 50 wins, doing so in 232 races. He’s holds the record with five Brickyard 400 wins, including the inaugural race in 1994. He’s won the Daytona 500 three times, and is one of 10 drivers to claim the trophy more than once. His 797-race ironman streak, the longest active streak of races run, will come to an end at the 2016 Daytona 500.

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    Gordon long ago passed the torch as the man to beat in the Sprint Cup Series to his teammate Jimmie Johnson, who has won six championships since Gordon claimed his last one. Gordon, who co-owns Johnson’s 48 car, won’t have another chance to claim his fifth championship, but he still steps away as one of the best drivers to ever set foot in the garage.

    Congratulations to Jeff Gordon on an incredible career, and good luck in the future.