MARTINSVILLE, Va. – They paused to take in the moment. The chants and cheers came between bursts of camera phone flashes. When they didn’t take pictures, they stood, soaking in a scene no photo or video can truly replicate.
Then the chanting resumed from among the thousands who stood in the darkened frontstretch grandstands, their numbers visible through flickers of light from the scoreboard well after the sun had set at Martinsville Speedway.
Jeff Gordon stood on a stage before them bathed in light and the crowd’s affection.
“Homestead! Homestead! Homestead!’’
Standing next to the grandfather clock – the ninth he’s won at this track – and surrounded by his family, Gordon pumped his arm to the rhythm of the chants.
He’s heard the thunderous roar at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, felt the love at Daytona International Speedway and experienced the adulation at Sonoma Raceway, located near his hometown. Sunday’s victory, though, was unlike any of his 92 other Sprint Cup triumphs.
Winless in more than a year and days from the end of his career, Gordon will go into the final Cup race – in three weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway – with a chance to win his first championship in more than a decade.
Fans wanted to savor Sunday, which began with rain and concerns that the race might not make it the full distance. Fans stayed through that and weren’t ready to leave when the race was over.
They surrounded the stage. They stayed in the grandstand. They stood near his car, parked nearby. NASCAR officials and police officers guarded the car but fans orderly kneeled one at a time next to it, a keepsake for their Facebook page or phone to show that they were there the last time Gordon raced at Martinsville.
The chanting continued.
“Thank You Jeff! Thank You Jeff! Thank You Jeff!’’
While Sonoma is home, Indianapolis his adopted home and Daytona the home of stock-car racing’s biggest race, Martinsville has always been a special place for him and his fans.
He noticed it this week with the crowds that surrounded him for an autograph, photo or just the chance to be near the man who transformed NASCAR. They told him this was their last race together. They fretted about never seeing him again. He had to remind them he wasn’t dying, he just won’t be racing.
Sunday, he gave them one reason to cheer. When Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked leader Joey Logano with less than 50 laps to go, two of Gordon’s toughest foes were out of the way. He moved into the lead with 22 laps left and held off Jamie McMurray in two-lap shootout to the checkered flag.
Afterward, Gordon stopped his car on the frontstretch, climbed out and grabbed the checkered flag. He danced with the innocence of a 5-year-old, waving his arms before flying into the embrace of his crew.
The crowd roared. Many have seen him cry, pump his fist and celebrate win after win in a career that dates back to 1992, but they had not seen this.
Even with darkness smothering this historic half-time track, they knew they were seeing something special.
Kyle Busch understood. Days earlier he said he didn’t see Gordon winning the title at Homestead if Logano and Kevin Harvick also were among the final four. Busch, a former teammate to Gordon, went to the stage to congratulate Gordon.
“I don’t think there is anything more sentimental or cool than him to win his final race at Martinsville and punch his ticket all the way to Homestead,’’ Busch said, walking away from the stage in the darkness. “Hopefully, we can be at Homestead to race them.’’
“Gordon! Gordon! Gordon!’’
Throughout the numerous interviews, the crowd chanted. Gordon often waved his arms in a bond one rarely sees between driver and fans because Victory Lane often is hidden from them. There’s not a good place in Martinsville’s compact infield to put Victory Lane, so track officials decided years ago to celebrate a driver’s win at the start/finish line, allowing fans to share in the celebration.
Last year, fans cheered when Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored his first victory at this track. Sunday seemed to top that moment.
“I don’t know what it feels like to be a rock star,’’ Gordon said, “but that’s as close as it can get I think.’’
After the interviews, Gordon, known for his humility, acted like a rock star. He ran up the steps to the walkway where fans had been watching him for more than an hour.
He high-fived young, old, new fan, veteran fan even non-fan, going one along the catwalk one way and then the other, tightening their bond on this special night.
As Gordon walked away, the crowd was silent.
There was nothing more left for them to say.