The birthday party was at Alfredo’s Pizza & Pasta in Lewisville, Texas, sometime prior to the turn of the century.
The only memory I have is of unwrapping a pair of walkie talkies. Walkie talkies in the form of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, the rainbow-colored car that had been a part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series since 1992.
After opening the present, I looked across the table at whichever kid had gifted them to me.
Instead of saying thank you, I made a declaration over the noise of the party.
“I don’t like Jeff Gordon.”
“Seeing Jeff Gordon plow up a wall brings a smile to Dale Jr.’s face.” – Cledus T. Judd
The first NASCAR race I ever attended was the inaugural Winston Cup event at Texas Motor Speedway in April 1997.
The only things I remember from the race were being devastated that Dale Earnhardt Sr. was caught in a first-lap crash and being more than pleased that Gordon’s day ended on Lap 163, when he rammed into back of an already wrecking Ernie Irvan.
I would have a similar feeling when Gordon slammed into the frontstretch wall at TMS in 1999 as I watched from a suite with my dad.
It wasn’t until this year that I learned Gordon had been slightly injured in the crash and immediately felt guilty.
When Gordon won his 77th Sprint Cup race in 2007 at Talladega Superspeedway on Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s birthday – at essentially the Dale Earnhardt capital of the world – I was as pissed off as all the fans throwing cups and cans of beer on the track as Gordon took the checkered flag.
I didn’t have a beer to throw. I just turned the TV off.
When you’re between the ages of 7 and 10, who you root for in any sport has nothing to do with how important an athlete or team is to the growth of a sport and its acceptance in mainstream culture.
It has to do with any of these factors:
- Who your parents root for.
- What car manufacturer you or your parents prefer (which has never made sense to me).
- A random car/driver you choose during the first race you watched in person or on TV.
- How cool a team’s paint scheme is.
- Whoever wins the most.
I’ve never trusted anyone who based their loyalties, NASCAR or otherwise, on that last one.
It was also one of the reasons I despised Jeff Gordon.
Also, he was pretty dull. Or that’s how 8 – 10-year-old me perceived him.
But it was mostly the three championships and FORTY wins between 1995 and 1999.
Seriously, I’m still bitter over his 13-win season in 1998. Mark Martin produces his best season ever and Gordon blows it out of the water by 364 points.
Like any NASCAR fan of the time I collected diecast cars.
The only reason I owned two Gordon diecasts was the fourth option. (I have a third, but only because it was sponsored by Star Wars: Episode I). His car looked awesome. Bright and colorful, it stood out among the field of 43 cars that raced every Sunday afternoon.
Remember, I was about 8 years old.
My dad tried, he really did. He tried to encourage me to be a fan of both Earnhardt and Gordon.
But “The Intimidator” prevailed over “Wonder boy,” with the only aspect of Gordon appealing to me being that “Rainbow Warriors” paint scheme, which he ran from 1992 – 2000.
It’s why on Oct. 31 of this year, the night before Gordon recorded his 93rd win, I ordered a diecast of the Axalta sponsored car he drove at Bristol earlier in the year that was painted like it had been prior to 2001.
The next day, as Gordon celebrated his automatic bid into the championship race at Homestead, I wasn’t upset. For the first time in almost two decades of following NASCAR, I was more than happy to see the No. 24 in victory lane.
I think the tide started to change around 2009, but more firmly in 2010 when I realized Jimmie Johnson’s level of success wasn’t going away.
I’ll admit I kind of checked out of the sport during those years.
During my high school years, NASCAR got less of my attention due to, you know, high school stuff. But really, what was there to be excited about during those five years? The Car of Tomorrow?
But by the end of that stretch I was resigned to a certain train of thought when the 48 appeared on the verge of yet another win.
“I’d rather see Jeff Gordon win.”
9-year-old me would have burned his entire diecast collection had he heard me utter those words.
Gordon was winning. Just not as much as he did during the height of the “Rainbow Warrior” years. Between 2006 – 2010, the 24 won only nine times. In two of those seasons, he never visited victory lane.
But instead of enjoying his slow decline, I had been more concerned about the drought of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
During this time, the people I had associated with the golden age of NASCAR began to leave the sport or slowly fade away in part-time rides: Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Terry and Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Ward and Jeff Burton and Bill Elliott.
Then, on a morning last January, a news alert on my cell phone heralded the end.
Jeff Gordon was retiring.
I wasn’t happy. Whatever my emotion was, the process of getting there started five months earlier.
The first Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup race I covered as a working journalist was the 2014 Brickyard 400.
It was July 27, or according to the state of Indiana, “Jeff Gordon Day.”
It was indeed.
It wasn’t lost on me that my first time covering a Cup race turned out to be a win by a driver I once hated with the power of the twin Tatooine suns.
In the post-race press conference I worked up the nerve to actually ask a question. People make a big deal about meeting their heroes or even getting the chance to talk to them. It’s a similar, though slightly different feeling when it’s someone you considered the opposite of an idol, whatever that is.
But the biggest challenge was writing about it. Which I did. If you can write objectively about someone you used to hate, you can write about anyone.
I realized I was going to miss Jeff Gordon when he won the pole for the fall Talladega race.
I was sitting at home on the couch, writing about it for NBC Sports. A giant roar came from the crowd when it realized he had done it.
At Talladega. The same track that rained beers down on the 24 eight years ago.
And there I was, happy for Gordon. I had been when he won the pole for the Daytona 500. I had actively hoped he would pull off a win at Chicagoland while he led 41 laps.
But when I really think about it. I wasn’t just rooting for Gordon. I, and everyone who stayed behind to shower Gordon with cheers at Martinsville, were also rooting for what Gordon represents.
The 44-year-old driver is the last solid connection to my favorite era of the sport.
Of all the drivers who competed in that first race at Texas in 1997, Gordon is the last full-time driver left.
So much about NASCAR has changed since 2004. The car, the Chase, the tracks and the faces.
He’s been the only constant since I can remember.
The constant ends tomorrow.
And I don’t hate Jeff Gordon.