By Aaron Burns
Jeff Gordon’s final Sprint All-Star Race was solid if unspectacular last Saturday, but the importance attached to the event made it memorable.
Gordon was introduced last during driver introductions at Charlotte Motor Speedway and met with a chorus of cheers that nearly rivaled those for teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon, if you didn’t know, used to draw cheers at Charlotte only when he wrecked or pulled into the garage early.
Those times are long gone.
On Saturday, fans held up “Thank you, Jeff” No. 24 cards as he walked onto the stage with his family and crew. Gordon hoped to leave the track hours later with the trophy and a million dollars, but – as has been the case since his last All-Star win in 2001 – it wasn’t meant to be.
“It was really amazing in pre-race to see all those signs,” Gordon said. “I was surprised. I didn’t know that was happening and I got out there and I was pretty overwhelmed by that. We would have liked to have had a win in our last one.”
Gordon posted a fourth-place finish in a race people may remember most for being pretty forgettable. Clean air at the front of the pack, ninth-place finisher Brad Keselowski estimated, gave drivers an advantage of nearly a third of a second.
Gordon never had clean air. He had to battle from ninth place on the grid to get to the top five, but he wasn’t able to challenge eventual winner Denny Hamlin.
Still, it’s hard not to call Gordon’s night a success. Earnhardt, one of the stronger cars early on, finished 10th and Jimmie Johnson, the odds-on favorite, wound up 15th. Gordon led the charge for Hendrick Motorsports – as he often did at Charlotte in the 1990s.
This time around, he left Charlotte with plenty of optimism for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. And for Gordon, optimism often goes pretty far.
“I thought we showed signs of some good speed,” Gordon said. “We learned some things on some restarts, and got a couple of things we can work on to be even better for next week.”