The second half of Jeff Gordon’s last Sprint Cup season sees the four-time champion visiting tracks as a competitor for the last time.
Each week Gordon is asked the same questions, just with different track names used.
Friday, he received those questions at Watkins Glen International, which also plays host to his final NASCAR event at a road course.
Gordon, who will retire after 23 seasons, takes his leave as the Sprint Cup’s all-time win leader on road courses with nine. The Hendrick Motorsports driver earned five wins at Sonoma Raceway and four at Watkins Glen.
But those winning memories are not the ones that linger for Gordon.
“I feel like I say this every weekend when I get asked about a track that I’m going to for the last time,” Gordon said Friday. “I seem to remember the things that got away more than I think of the ones that (ended) sitting in victory lane. Those are great moments and I’m proud of those, but I can’t help but think of spinning out in the closing laps here leading this race (in 2007) going into (Turn) 1 after I just watched Tony (Stewart) do the same thing about 25 laps before that. It was going to be a great battle between me and him. I just went in there and lost it. That one certainly stands out.”
That finish came the year after Gordon’s final Sonoma win and the No. 24 hasn’t visited victory lane at either road course since. His last win at the Glen was in 2001 when Gordon finished a stretch of four wins in five years.
Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 is his last chance to recapture the magic that’s become very difficult to achieve as the playing field has leveled out on road courses. It’s no longer the day of Gordon winning seven of his first 18 races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, most with the help of Ray Evernham.
“Back then you had to try to be good everywhere because every track mattered for the championship. It was something that we really pursued heavily,” Gordon said. “I enjoyed it, even though I didn’t grow up road racing a lot.”
Before he reached the world of NASCAR, Gordon, who rose through the ranks of sprint cars, spent as much time as he could acclimating to road-course racing whenever the opportunity arose.
“If somebody gave me an opportunity to get in a racecar or to go to a driving school, then I was packing my helmet back and heading that way,” Gordon said. “I did it up at Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) in Canada. I did it with Skip Barber and I think after I started NASCAR, I did the one out in Sonoma and I also did the one in Phoenix with Bob Bondurant.”
But he didn’t have road course time in “big cars” and his first Sprint Cup start in one came at Sonoma in 1993 when he finished 11th, then 37th in 1994. It wasn’t until 1997 and ’98 when he earned his first wins at Watkins Glen and Sonoma respectively. Both wins sparked a stretch of three straight at each track.
“We had a team and a car that was capable of being very competitive. Especially Ray back in those early days when the crew chiefs had more flexibility, as to how you could find an edge over the competition he worked hard on the transmissions, the braking, the set-ups and gave me everything that I needed to go out and push the limits of the car and get a lot out of it. We started excelling at them.”
Gordon says the deep field of drivers capable of winning at WGI and Sonoma started in the late ’90s. Teams began taking road courses more seriously.
“Under the new rules that we have had for the last several years, the cars are almost built by NASCAR in so many ways,” Gordon said. “It’s just so limited as to what you can do to the cars. We used to have full on specialized road course cars where they were completely dedicated to turning right more so than left. We shifted the weight around. We shifted the bodies around. We did a lot of things. That is all gone. Now we are basically racing cars that we would race on a short track here and they are not really designed for that. But we make do with it.”
Gordon made do in the final Sprint Cup practice session Friday at Watkins Glen, where he finished with the fastest speed. Gordon, who is 10th in points, will look to capitalize on that in order to earn his first win of the 2015, which would ensure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“There are no guarantees unless you get that win. That win means so much,” Gordon said. “I feel like we are doing what we need to do from a point standings point of view. It’s important for us, if we can’t win this race, to be really solid again.”