HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The man who guided Jeff Gordon to his most recent NASCAR championship won’t be at Homestead-Miami Speedway today as Gordon tries for a fifth title in his final start.
As Gordon’s self-proclaimed “No. 1 fan,” Robbie Loomis still will be watching the Ford 400 with rapt attention and few distractions at his home near Daytona Beach.
“Oh, man, I’ve had every invitation in the world, and I’m going to be watching that thing by myself,” Loomis said with a chuckle during a phone interview with NASCAR Talk. “I’ve had people wanting to cook out and watch on big-screen TVs, and I’m going to watch by myself.”
Loomis, who notched 23 victories and the 2001 championship as Gordon’s crew chief from 2000-05, said he was invited by former employer Hendrick Motorsports but declined because he remembered the scene as the crew chief for Richard Petty’s final race in November 1992 (which also happened to be Gordon’s debut).
“I remember Richard’s final year (and) how many people were there who weren’t doing anything toward the goal of winning the race,” Loomis said. “They’re kind of a distraction. I don’t want to be any distraction to it, so I’ll be watching (at home).
“And I usually don’t watch the prerace hype, but I’ll be watching all that stuff because I’ll be able to see a lot more of Jeff and hear all the interviews and really take everything in a lot better watching on (NBC) than actually being in the middle of it all.”
Loomis hasn’t worked in NASCAR since leaving Richard Petty Motorsports as chief operating officer in January 2012, but he has followed Gordon’s progress with interest, particularly during his final season.
“Especially after we quit racing against each other, he became the No. 1 guy that I pulled for,” Loomis said. “When you have so much history with somebody, and you love something so much, they’re always kind of a part of you, even if you’re not around them. What I love about this is there’s not many chance of athletes get a chance to go out on top and be the finest three hours of this whole career come together.
“I’ve been playing a lot of tennis, and I think about Steffi Graf when I look at Gordon. She could be good on all the different tennis courts. Jeff’s good at all the racetracks and capable of winning on all of them. What’s been nice watching him this year is the nice person that we all knew, that the insiders know Jeff as, it’s like the whole world is getting to see him as not just the driver, but Jeff the husband and Jeff the family man. A whole different side of him.”
The farewell also has caused Loomis to reflect on the full spectrum of his experience with Gordon.
“You get filled with a lot of different emotions,” he said. “You’re thankful and feel a lot of gratitude that you got a chance to be a part of that. Also, it leads to the bad pit calls that you made or the bad choices you made on car selection. You think of those things and think, “Wow, why didn’t I seize that opportunity a little bit better here or there.’ The missed opportunities all come back to the top.”
The race that still haunts him the most occurred July 2003 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Gordon finished 24th after leading a race-high 133 of 300 laps. Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson won it on a sounder strategy by crew chief Chad Knaus.
“We just dominated the day, and I made a pit call to say out when everyone behind me pitted.” Loomis said. “It’s hard to ever shake that one for some reason, and it’s the one I handed to Chad and Jimmie, who were there to pick up the ball and win the race. That was like you talk about a passing of the guard.”
A season later brought the debut of the Chase for the Sprint Cup and one of the more crushing disappointments of Gordon’s career. He finished 16 points behind champion Kurt Busch, who benefited from an opportune caution in the finale at Miami. Gordon led a race-high 155 laps a week earlier at Darlington Raceway but placed third because of an air-hose problem on the final pit stop.
“We should have won that race, and the bonus points and the momentum probably would have propelled us to the championship,” Loomis said. “We stumbled there. That one really stung a lot. When I look at the end of that year, and I see Kurt’s tire come off like it did, and the caution came out, that’s one of those things that told me at the end of the day that you can do everything you can, but sometimes things are not meant to be your way and meant to be someone else’s way.”
There are some elements that can be controlled, though, namely with race preparation.
In Petty’s final race, Loomis said much of the focus was on ensuring the structural integrity of his No. 43.
“When you think about how long this career has been for Jeff, you think about unfortunately (Dale) Earnhardt didn’t get to finish his out,” Loomis said. “That’s probably the biggest thing is you want to see him come out of there safe and in one piece. I remember back when Richard retired, that was our sole focus going into that race was checks and rechecks of all the safety stuff just to make sure we got him out of there in one piece.”
Petty, though, was eight years removed from his last win when he made his final start. Gordon will be racing for much higher stakes against Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., and Loomis believes
“Jeff’s got a level in him that when he is as close as he is to this thing here, and he can see it, he brings that level and raises everybody’s level,” Loomis said. “(Crew chief) Alan Gustafson and everyone on that team will find something that sometimes you don’t even know you have in you.
“Richard used to say that winners just have something special in them, and champions have even more of that makeup in them that lets them go to that different level. In all the sports, I think you see it in Michael Jordan. They play three quarters even and then in the fourth, Jordan would go crazy.
“Jeff’s obviously always had that. His work ethic, his determination. A lot of that is probably a credit to John Bickford. Everyone knows that Mr. Hendrick is such a great motivator and keeps everyone focused with their eyes on the prize. I see all Jeff’s kindness and nature that everyone sees, that’s from his mom. That’s from Carol.”
Loomis has been involved in real estate investing while splitting time between North Carolina and Florida the past few years. He has learned to appreciate a different pace and a fresh perspective from traveling internationally to see “just how big the world is.
“It took me a long time to get over the (NASCAR) fever,” he said. “I’m still not over it. But to be able to move forward in a different style of life. That’s what I tell everybody. Everybody talks like a part of Jeff is dying, but he’s really going to just start living, you know?”
Of course, that transition would be delayed if Gordon wins a fifth title that would rank among the most celebrated and popular in NASCAR history.
“That’s what I think is so great about (today),” Loomis said. “It’s not only great for Jeff Gordon, who did so much for the sport, but it’s so good for the sport and the way that things could wind up.
“Even if he doesn’t wind up being the champion, whether he has four or five championships is really irrelevant because he’s such a champion in life to everybody.”