Friday, January 23, 2015

Wonderboy takes a seat

Of course you thought it was too soon. He is forever young, right?

Somehow, years and championships and victory upon victory along, Jeff Gordon remains the kid with the porn-star 'stache, the 23-year-old who looked 12 and cried when he won his first Cup race, and who ever after was dubbed "Wonderboy" by the smirking dark lord of NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt. Wasn't it just a week or so ago that he fled across the yard of brick to win the inaugural Brickyard 400? Wasn't it just a few days later that we were all anointing him the Next Big Thing?

And now here he is, announcing the Last Big Thing. At the end of the coming season, he's through as a full-time driver, climbing out of the No. 24 except on selected occasions, going home to his wife and his kids and the business opportunities that are sure to come for the man most responsible for the multi-layered commercial empire that is today's NASCAR.

If Earnhardt took it national, it was Gordon who took it corporate. Turn on your TV, and there he was, hawking Pepsi or Fritos or some other comestible. Open a magazine, and there he was again, all slicked up, holding up his left arm to prominently display his Tag Heuer watch.

Square-jawed and impossibly pretty, he became as much the public face of the sport as anyone, a circumstance that sometimes obscured just how good he was. If you ever doubt it, cue up the finish of the 1999 Daytona 500. Watch the move he made to take the lead with 11 laps to run, diving low to squeeze through a mail-slot opening between the leader, Rusty Wallace, and an off-the-pace Ricky Rudd.

There have been a lot of great moves made in NASCAR down the years. There's never been a better one than that.

Through all of it, of course, he remained ageless. Even in his later years, when he evolved into the elder statesman of the sport, you still looked at him sometimes and saw Wonderboy, saw the Rainbow Warrior who grabbed the sport so thoroughly by the throat that for awhile he was booed at almost every track he went to.

He had, after all, committed that most unpardonable of NASCAR sins: He won too much.

He has done that.  If it's not the gray at his temples that makes you realize time has not, in fact, stood still around him, it's the numbers piled up behind his name. Ninety-two Cup wins, third alltime behind Richard Petty and the best driver in the history of the sport, David Pearson.  Four titles. Three Daytona 500s. A record five Brickyard 400s -- the latest coming just last summer, when Gordon had a lion-in-winter season that produced four wins and nearly carried him to another title.

That resurrection as much as anything convinced him, midway through the season, that he'd give it one more year and then call it quits as a full-season driver. The rest is simply the natural arc of any man's life: At 43, Wonderboy is now a middle-aged husband and father who, despite the eternal-youth thing, is far older than he looks.

He has, after all, been doing this for almost 23 years. He's started 761 consecutive Cup races; sometime this season, he'll likely pass Rick Rudd's record 788. And he's paid the physical price, having struggled for years with serious back issues that nearly drove him from the sport after a winless, pain-wracked season in 2008.

So, it's time. And in a sense he's come full circle; if he cried after winning his first Cup victory, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600, he cried again yesterday when he told his kids, then broke down again when he stood up in front of his race team in a dark suit and tie, looking less like Wonderboy than perhaps he ever has.

Seeing him like that, so boardroom-proper, sparks a memory. Some years ago I headed west on Indiana 136, through Clermont, past what was then called Indianapolis Raceway Park, on to Pittsboro, 14 miles away from the place where Jeff Gordon had made history that boiling August day in 1994.  The intention was to talk to a few folks who remembered the Gordon who spent his teenage years there, and I got lucky.
I found his old principal. Some others. Eventually I wound up in the living room of the woman Gordon used to regard as his de facto grandmother, a woman who had filled her home with photos of him as a teenager.

She showed me some. And it will come as no surprise to anyone that the Gordon in those photos looked remarkably like the Gordon I would see a few days later, sitting in the Speedway media center holding forth on the upcoming Brickyard.

Wonderboy lived.

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