Race Weekend Central

The Times, They Have a-Changed

It’s been said that changes in life are inevitable, but come on, NASCAR! First, it was the Gen-6 car as a means by which to improve Sprint Cup competition. Then, it was the win-and-you’re-in, Game Seven redesign of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Next, it was announced that what we’ve known and loved as “souvenir row” will be “McDonaldized” (in the terminology of sociologist George Ritzer) into more of a traveling mini mall of merchants, attractions and other high-tech goodies, like event-specific items created right at the track and applications for buying souvenirs via a smartphone.

Credit: CIA Stock Photography
Jeff Gordon took the NASCAR world for a ride with the announcement that he will hang up his full-time helmet at the end of the 2015 season. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

And now? Jeff Gordon says that the 2015 Cup season will be his last as a full-time driver.

Enough already!

Granted, I’m a tad sensitive to such sweeping shifts in what has always felt like traditional ways of doing things in NASCAR. I’m also about three months away from turning fifty, so the notion that changes occur naturally and are an expected part of life does not sit comfortably with me.

In a word: colonoscopy. But I digress….

When Jeff Gordon told the folks at Hendrick Motorsports (and hence, the world) of his intended plans, it seemed like the stuff of maybe a fuzzy dream, or even some sweeps week television ratings ploy. Could it be that a driver seemingly on the cusp of a career renaissance might see some dim light at the end of the NASCAR tunnel, considering a  slowdown to actually enjoy life – the “regular” kind Gordon pretty much missed during his steady climb toward motorsports stardom?

Maybe becoming a dad had something to do with his decision to step away from a full-time driving gig. Gordon and I both have seven-year-olds, so I can attest to cursing the demands of a busy and highly responsible career when all I want most days is take my son to school and volunteer for PTO events. Gordon has been busy trying to win Sprint Cup championships, and that surely puts a strain on serious quality parenting time.

Maybe he can cover the carpool once he parks his No. 24 Chevrolet….

Gordon has been dealing with a dodgy back for quite a while, a nagging ailment that reared its ugly head a few times during 2014. Are the physical demands of driving a stock car finally catching up to “Wonder Boy” at the ripe old age of 43?

As someone who suffers from a back injury-gone-arthritic, let’s just say that I feel Gordon’s pain; even with constant attention to rehabbing such a condition, going to the racetrack every week is no longer my idea of carefree fun. Not saying “I told you so,” but having to get injections in order to make driving easier might be akin to the proverbial writing on the wall that life isn’t what it used to be.

So, when does Chase Elliott get fitted for his seat in the No. 24 Chevy?

I guess what has me pretty much freaked out about Gordon’s announcement is the fact that he has been such a major player in the NASCAR Nation I’ve occupied for the past two decades. Hearing Elliott’s name mentioned as a 2016 replacement for Gordon, while confirming that timeframe also sends a chill up my calendar. I remember when Chase was an infant, cradled in his Hall-of-Fame father’s arms during a pre-race worship service at Pocono in 1996. That child is now a NASCAR champion, seemingly poised to take the place of a driver who was, for all intents and purposes, the most dynamic name in big-time stock car racing since the early 1990s.

Sure, Gordon wasn’t anything like the late, great Dale Earnhardt, but “The Intimidator” must have seen something promising in the lead-footed kid from California. The two biggest names in NASCAR during the modern era enjoyed not only a fierce rivalry, but a wildly successful business partnership. When someone bought a Dale Earnhardt souvenir, Jeff Gordon received a cut of the money and vice versa. Their friendly rivalry changed NASCAR and put stock car racing firmly within mainstream culture.

HENDERSON: The Earnhardt-Gordon Rivalry… Jeff’s Lasting Legacy

Gordon appeared in films, did national television shows, and became the fresh new face of wild-and-wooly NASCAR. While doing so, a young but determined driver held firm to his beliefs about the sport. When Will Farrell approached NASCAR about making a comedy about Sprint Cup racing, Gordon (from what I was told) refused to even look at the script, believing that any comedic depiction of NASCAR would be wrong for the sport’s delicate, sometimes precarious public image. Talladega Nights, as the movie wound up being called was more like Talladega Nightmare in his head.

Even a decade ago, in his mid-30s Gordon was acting like an elder statesman in NASCAR. It was as if he recognized the idea that preserving the present is a good step toward stabilizing the future.

Now, Gordon is about to make a significant life change. Stepping away from a full-time ride a year from now allows him to assume a different and exciting role within both Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR Nation. He’ll have time for fresh challenges and new accomplishments, exactly what such important changes are all about.

The Sprint Cup Series will never be the same. But just wait until the next bake sale at Ella and Leo’s school….

About the author

Dr. Mark Howell is a college professor whose life and area of specialization is all about motorsports. He has published two books on the topic, has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs to talk about NASCAR and has been part of the Frontstretch team since 2011. Mark also spent three years (2001-2003) as a part-time pit crew member in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. As a professor, Mark teaches courses in advanced writing, popular culture, and film studies. He is also on the nominating committee of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, Florida. In January 2017, Mark was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It has curtailed his writing for Frontstretch, but he still manages to provide content whenever possible.

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So will Charlotte put those thousands of seats back up for 2015? And let’s not forget that because of Gordon, we have Jimmie Johnson. Gee, thanks.

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