By Jerry Bonkowski
It finally will hit home Sunday. Jeff Gordon truly is retired.
You’re probably wondering how I could have missed Gordon’s retirement at the end of last season. I didn’t miss it, but I admit I’ve been in a bit of denial nonetheless.
Sure, Gordon missed this season’s first five races at Daytona, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana. But no other racetrack will Gordon be missed the most than Martinsville Speedway.
The half-mile bullring in southern Virginia was Gordon’s best track performance-wise, period. In 46 career Sprint Cup starts, Gordon earned nine wins, 29 top-fives, 37 top-10 finishes and seven poles.
That outstanding record worked out to an equally outstanding average finish of 6.8 for Gordon during his nearly quarter century tenure at Martinsville.
And what better way to end his reign at the paperclip track than to win last fall’s Chase for the Sprint Cup race – which coincidentally was also the 93rd and final win of Gordon’s Cup career.
There was no better place for Gordon to do so than Martinsville. Not only did he earn his ninth grandfather clock, his win helped fans somewhat forget – or at least partly overlook – the wreck in the same race where Matt Kenseth intentionally took out Joey Logano, earning Kenseth a two-race suspension.
It’s honestly going to be strange – if not downright weird – not to have Gordon behind the wheel at Martinsville on Sunday, where he was a fixture twice a year for 23 straight seasons.
Sure, Chase Elliott has gone on to assume Gordon’s position in the No. 24 Chevrolet, but it’s not going to be the same.
While the car number remains, the driver will be different, the sponsor will be different and the whole Martinsville vibe and karma will be completely different.
I’m willing to bet there are a lot of racing fans – and more importantly, Jeff Gordon fans – who feel the same way as I do. Sure, we’ve seen the charming, astute and intelligent Gordon in the Fox Sports broadcast booth for each of the first Sprint Cup races of 2016.
But I won’t be surprised if Gordon gets a little misty-eyed or choked up at some point either just before or right after the green flag drops to start Sunday’s race.
There are so many memories that Gordon left Martinsville with over the years. Most were good, but there were also a few that he’d like to forget, particularly his run-in with Jimmie Johnson in the Spring 2007 race there.
Johnson and Gordon went at it in a very uncharacteristic manner, beating and banging on each other in the closing laps like bitter enemies – certainly not like teammates.
Johnson ultimately won that race, beating Gordon by a fender’s length. Perhaps one of the reasons why Gordon was so perturbed at the outcome was if it had gone the other way and he had taken the checkered flag, it would have tied Gordon with Dale Earnhardt for sixth (at the time) on the all-time NASCAR win’s list (76).
Gordon ultimately earned that win two races later at Phoenix – and would go on to win 17 more races before he finally called it quits at the end of last season.
Gordon would walk away as the third-winningest driver in Cup history. And in somewhat of an ironic twist, Johnson has both tied (Atlanta) and passed Earnhardt (Fontana) to take over sole possession of seventh on the all-time wins list this season.
Yes, Jeff Gordon really, truly is retired – and I’ll finally come to believe it Sunday.
While I’d give anything to see Gordon come back for one more start at Martinsville, I and so many others who identify Gordon most with the oldest racetrack in NASCAR can all finally let his legacy go Sunday.