Thursday marked the 15-year anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the final lap of the Daytona 500, the starkest of reminders that this is a sport where tomorrow, where retirement, where happily ever after is never guaranteed. Not even for one of the greatest and most iconic drivers of them all.
Jeff Gordon was Earnhardt's rival and Earnhardt's friend. He was on the track that day, Feb. 18, 2001. He, like so many others, can't show up here each February for the Daytona 500 and not remember.
This Sunday, for the first time since 1993, Gordon won't be in the Daytona 500. Instead, the 44-year-old begins a second career as a Fox broadcaster.
He's a retired driver now and the beauty of that phrase isn't lost on him. Retired is a heck of a thing to be in this sport. It means he didn't just beat a lot of drivers en route to 93 career Sprint Cup victories and four season championships. He also beat the whole damn sport, a goal that he admits slowly, and frighteningly, seeped into his thinking at the end of his career.
"I'll tell you what," Gordon told Yahoo Sports here Thursday, "I used to never think about getting injured. Sure I never wanted to be injured. But when I was in the car driving the car, I never thought about it … until last year.
"When I announced that would be my final year, that thought went through my head more times than I can tell you," Gordon continued. "And that was scary to me. I didn't like being in the car thinking
You can't drive scared. You can't drive with thoughts other than winning. It takes a special breed to do this, to instinctually push directly into dangerous situations.
Gordon started at age five, out near his home in California. By age six, almost no one his age could beat him. That part never really changed; even in his final season he finished third in the standings, a contender to the end.
That he managed to succeed at that level while battling in-race thoughts about his own mortality may be the ultimate testament to his greatness.
It's also why whatever pangs of competitiveness might strike him on Sunday morning, reality isn't lost on him. It's sitting out there along that outer wall of Turn 4. It's in the faces of his wife and two young children and the promise of a summer, and many summers to come, where he isn't gone and racing all the time.
It's in that beautiful phrase – retired driver.
"I'm incredibly thankful," Gordon said. "Of course I wake up every day with a lot of aches and pains. I know just being in a racecar for as many years as I have been, I think about 39 years, it took a toll on me.
"But I feel very, very fortunate," he continued. "And not just because I am standing here today and I know the history, especially on a day like today, 15 years going back to Dale Sr. But I went through some wrecks that could have been devastating. I feel very fortunate, especially now looking at all the safety features in the cars that we didn't then. I feel fortunate that I was able to walk away from those wrecks."
Gordon is a throwback to the era before HANS devices and SAFER barriers and the Car of Tomorrow. His old crashes aren't just...
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