Fans had seen the tears and excitement from Jeff Gordon through the years, but they hadn’t seen this.
After he stood on the car’s door, basked in the crowd’s cheers, and leapt into his crew after winning last November at Martinsville Speedway, Gordon jumped and shouted “We’re going to Homestead!” with the enthusiasm of a child who received the one gift they had wanted so much.
“Probably one of the greatest victory celebrations I ever experienced throughout my career,’’ Gordon said Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
As NASCAR returns to Martinsville this weekend, it marks the first Sprint Cup race since 1992 that Gordon won’t be competing at the historic half-mile track. His victory last November was his ninth there. Gordon trails only Richard Petty (15 wins) and fellow Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip (11) in victories at the track.
Even as Gordon did the standard victory lane photos on the stage near the start/finish line last fall, many fans lingered. At times they chanted his name or Homestead and he responded. When he finished with all the photos, Gordon walked into the stands to high-five fans who remained nearly an hour after he scored what would be his final Sprint Cup win.
In a career that celebrated five Brickyard 400s wins, four championships and three Daytona 500s triumphs among 93 career wins, few moments meant as much to Gordon as winning at Martinsville last year and earning a chance to compete for the championship in the season finale. Gordon said the fans made the moment even more special.
“Even when you win at a tracks that are meaningful, I can think of the Brickyard 400 wins that I’ve had, they are very, very special, (but) none of them are you that close to the fans and rarely are the fans that exhilarated and excited about what they saw,’’ Gordon said.
At many tracks, victory lane is behind pit road, well away from fans on the frontstretch, but Martinsville’s victory lane is on the frontstretch, putting it closer to the fans.
Gordon’s win that day culminated a challenging race for him.
“It was one of the tougher Martinsville races that I had to deal with because it was cool that day and there was no rubber being laid down on the track,’’ Gordon said. “For me and my style at Martinsville, it kind of requires that rubber to be laid down. When that rubber’s not laid down, really managing your rear tires is important.
“Even though my car had a lot more short-run speed in it, I had to be really, really careful not to use it because it would burn the rear tires off. Throughout the race I just remember telling myself, ‘Hold back, hold back, hold back.’
“I wanted to go. I had a race horse underneath me. I just wanted to go. I just kept having to remind myself to be calm.’’
That is until he won.