“I figured out why a lot NASCAR fans don’t like Jeff Gordon, and it’s not because Gordon wins every other week. A lot of NASCAR fans don’t like Jeff Gordon because Jeff Gordon enunciates. And there really ain’t a place for that kind of stuff in NASCAR.”
— Jeff Foxworthy
The man who changed NASCAR is sinking into one of those comfy chairs they have in the corners of his favorite Starbucks. Jeff Gordon likes this Starbucks because they know him by name, and it’s pretty quiet in here, and also it’s close to the hospital that works on his back every week. His back, you should know, always hurts. That’s one of the stark realities of his 44-year-old life.
“Right now, it hasn’t sunk in,” he says. He is talking about the end of his driving career, which happens in less than two months at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon gets annoyed when people call it “retirement.” He’s not retiring. He will be working as hard as ever as a team owner and a NASCAR broadcaster for FOX and a businessman and a dad. He’s not retiring at all. He just won’t drive a race car anymore.
“I think at Homestead it will sink in,” he says. “Then again, it might not be until this time next year. I don’t know. Right now I’m excited about next year. I’m very content with the decision. It’s time for me.”
He shrugs. A man in the comfy chair next to him is working on a computer, and he keeps glancing over, perhaps in a “Oh, wow, that’s Jeff Gordon, four-time Cup Champion” way or possibly in a “Hey, keep it down, I’m doing some work here” way. It’s hard to tell. Gordon doesn’t seem to notice.
“I might say something completely different at this time next year or two years from now,” Gordon continues. “I might say, ‘You know what? I was a fool. I should have drove that car for another 10 years.’”
“Do you do that often?” I ask him. “Do you make a decision and then a year later regret it?”
He looks up and smiles a little. “No,” he admits. “It’s time.”
We get up from the comfy chairs, and Gordon tells me that his chair actually wasn’t comfortable at all, that the entire time he sat there his back was barking like seals off the Norfolk coast. The back pain is constant now, so much so that even his children know not to jump on him when he isn’t expecting it. This is a big reason why he’s leaving racing. “I don’t want to live a life where I can’t play with my kids,” he says. We begin to walk out to his car, but before we do, Gordon turns to the other man sitting in the Starbucks.
“Sorry if we disturbed you at all,” he says, and the man looks up at Gordon in a surprised way, and he undoubtedly thinks one of the two things people have been thinking about Jeff Gordon ever since he was a kid driving a rainbow-colored race car. The man could be thinking, “Wow, what a nice guy.” He also could be thinking, “I liked it when Earnhardt put you in the wall.”
* * *
“I drive fast, call me Jeff Gordon In a black SS with navigation.”
— Nelly, “E.I.”
NASCAR had outsiders before Jeff Gordon. Tim Richmond. Darrell Waltrip. Junior Johnson was certainly an outlaw, if not an outsider. But, from the start, there was something different about Gordon, something about his...