Gordon set admirable standard

I first saw Jeff Gordon race in November of 1992, but I barely noticed him.

My eyes were glued to the television for the final race of the season, but my interest had nothing to do with Gordon’s debut in NASCAR’s premier series.

No, the primary focus was the three-way battle for the championship between Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and privateer Alan Kulwicki.

And, oh, yes, there was the small matter of King Richard Petty taking the green flag in a Cup race for the final time.

A wreck took Allison out of contention, leaving Kulwicki to battle Elliott for the title, with Kulwicki earning the crown by leading one more lap than Elliott did — even though Elliott won the race.

A crash on Lap 96 took Petty out of the race in 35th place, hardly a fitting end for a driver who had accumulated 200 victories and seven championships while rewriting the NASCAR record books.

No one can be blamed for paying no attention when a crash knocked Gordon out of the event after 164 laps of his maiden race in the Cup series.

But, in retrospect, no one can deny that the 1992 season finale was perhaps the most important watershed event in the history of the sport. It was the only time all three titans of NASCAR racing — Gordon, Petty and Dale Earnhardt — ever competed against each other in the same event.

At the time, no one would have dreamed that the 1992 finale would be the jumping-off point for a career that would see Gordon start a record 797 straight Cup races over 23 years, win 93 events — third-most all-time — and four championships.

And on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Gordon’s career ended with considerably more fanfare and attention than it had begun.

The day started with an emotional meeting with his mother and continued with a throng of fans who followed Gordon’s every move as he worked his way through the garage.

IndyCar legend Mario Andretti, who also has a Daytona 500 win and a Formula One championship to his credit, was basking in Gordon’s limelight. At the start of the Ford EcoBoost 400, Gordon’s team owner, Rick Hendrick, relinquished his seat on Gordon’s pit box so Andretti could get an up-close view of the start of the race.

Megastar Lewis Hamilton, who recently wrapped up his third F1 championship, made the rounds with Gordon after driver introductions, as Gordon paused for a seemingly endless succession of last-race photos with the famous and not-so-famous.

Former President of the United States Bill Clinton, who shares some of Gordon’s charitable interests, wished the driver good luck in a post on Twitter.

At long last, after a rain delay of approximately 90 minutes, Gordon brought a hiatus to the hoopla when he strapped into the No. 24 Chevrolet and took the green flag. In the early going, the No. 24 car was strong. And when Gordon passed eventual race winner Kyle
Busch for the lead on Lap 36, the enthusiastic din from the grandstand was audible above the roar of the engines.

But when the sun went away in the late afternoon, so did Gordon’s title chances.

“I actually felt like, when I got ahead of Kyle, that we actually pulled away from him,” Gordon said. “I kind of got excited and got my hopes up there, but then Kevin started coming on pretty strong, and then we had that restart (on Lap 54, where Gordon lost five spots).

“I knew when those guys got by me I just didn’t quite have what they had. I was just lacking a couple little things. And then the sun started going down, and (the track) really started changing and we lost a bunch of positions and just couldn’t gain them back.”

After dropping out of the top 10, Gordon fought his way back to sixth at the finish and ended his last season third in the final standings, still without a championship under the Chase format.

But there is no shame in Gordon not going out on top of the sport.

Because he did.