When a career ends, only a few hear the cheers

Photo by Dustin Long
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BRISTOL, Tenn. — For many athletes, the cheers often are for someone else. Only a few bathe in the crescendoing chorus that celebrates a lifetime’s achievement.

Within the past six months, three of sport’s more recognized names — Gordon, Manning and Kobe — retired, walking away with highlight moments. Two of them, Jeff Gordon and Peyton Manning, will be at Bristol Motor Speedway for today’s Food City 500.

While Gordon didn’t win in his final NASCAR Sprint Cup start — he was one of four drivers racing for the championship — his November victory at Martinsville Speedway, where he jumped and shouted with childlike glee, provides an indelible image.

Three months later, Manning, who will be an honorary race official today, won the Super Bowl and left the NFL as a champion.

This past week, Kobe Bryant unleashed an awe-inducing 60-point performance in his final NBA game for the Los Angeles Lakers.

As time passes, none will be remembered as much for what they did in their final days competing but what they accomplished throughout their career.

That is why celebrities came to their final curtain call and fans showered these stars with adulation. For such celebrations, though, there are many other athletes who exit without fanfare or never know when their final event is until its well past.

LOOKING BACK

Carl Long leans against a stack of tires behind pit wall at Bristol Motor Speedway. Once a top driver at his local track, he moved up NASCAR’s ranks with limited success. He continues to race in the Xfinity Series because he can’t race in the Sprint Cup Series.

He still owes NASCAR $200,000 for a fine incurred in 2009 when his engine was found to be too large. Until the fine is paid, Long can’t drive in the Cup series.

“I’ve come to the reality for me to come up with $200,000 to pay the fine to go back on the other side and then to generate money to drive a car …’’ he said as his voice tails off.

His last Cup start in a points race came in 2006 in the Bristol summer night race. It was an event he wasn’t supposed to have run. When a car aligned with Long’s ride made the field but was left on the bubble in qualifying, Long said word was passed down to him not to bump the car because it was higher in points. He eased through his qualifying lap but still ran fast enough to make the show.

His race featured four penalties, including three for speeding on pit road, an engine that sputtered and hummed alternately and an upset stomach. After falling several laps behind, and the engine issues continuing, Long parked the car to avoid a wreck and immediately ran to the bathroom.

He attempted to make other Cup points races afterward but didn’t. Then came the penalty. And he was gone from that garage.

While circumstances differ, others also don’t know when their last Cup start has come.

David Gilliland has 330 career Sprint Cup starts and finished second twice, but he didn’t have a full-time ride after last season. He attempted to make the Daytona 500 in a third Front Row Motorsports car but didn’t. He said he’ll be entered at Talladega Superspeedway in a couple of weeks but doesn’t know if he’ll be in a Cup car for any additional events beyond that.

Brian Vickers said he wasn’t sure if he would be racing again after having to sit out multiple times because of blood clots. He’s returned to run select races for Tony Stewart, who is recovering from a back injury suffered in an all-terrain vehicle crash in January. Once Stewart returns for what will be his final season, Vickers will be left without a ride. Will it be his last or just an interlude?

BOTH SIDES

Kenny Wallace could not have imagined that when he climbed from his car after finishing 12th at Talladega in October 2008 he would not compete in a Cup series race again. He never won a Cup race in 344 starts. Three times he finished second, including a memorable runner-up run to Dale Earnhardt in what was Earnhardt’s last win in 2000 at Talladega.

“I have had a wonderful career and a wonderful life, but I will go to my grave upset on the inside, not fulfilled that I never won a Cup race,’’ Wallace said. “It bothers me. It is very disappointing.’’

For a driver who never made it Victory Lane in a Cup race, Wallace’s TV duties included doing shows from that location after races.

“That was the hardest thing on me, watching drivers drive into Victory Lane,’’ he said.

Nine times in the Xfinity Series, Wallace made that drive. After limited duty in 2013-14, he returned in 2015 for three races and made the exit in that series he never got a chance to do in Cup.

His record 547th Xfinity start took place last August at Iowa Speedway and became a celebration. His picture was put on a billboard at the track. He was in a Joe Gibbs Racing car. He was feted before the race for his accomplishments.

“It’s not that I needed to be loved,’’ Wallace said. “It made me feel good the everybody at Iowa recognized me, that I lived this sport. One of the things I’ll never forget is Wayne Auton, the boss of the Xfinity Series, he stood up in the drivers meeting … he said (of Wallace) ‘One of the best there ever was in the Xfinity Series.’ It caught me off guard.

“A week later, I said ‘Wayne you overdid that, I was not one of the best there ever was.’ He said, ‘Kenny Wallace, you don’t know it, but you were.’ ‘’

LOOKING AHEAD 

Gordon is gone. Stewart will be after this season. Three other Cup champions — Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth — are 40 or older. The sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is 41. None has stated they plan to retire soon, but they likely will be among those who get to choose when they leave the sport.

“Very few people get to do it on their own terms,’’ Kenseth said. “Even though I’ve been here for a long time, I never dreamed in a million years growing up in Wisconsin racing a little Late Model car that we bought for $1,800 at a little quarter-mile track that I would ever be able to do any of this stuff. Like Jeff’s been able to do and Tony … they can do it on their own terms. Yeah, if you had a choice, that’s what you want to do.”

Earnhardt, a boxing fan, cites famous boxers who did not exit with victories in their final bouts and says that didn’t diminish their aura.

“I don’t know if it’s key, critical that you have that great last race or go out on top,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s awesome if you can. A lot of guys love it so much that they don’t know how to go out when maybe they should. Or maybe they financially can’t and have to keep competing.

“I’ve always said I hope I get to make the choice on how I want to end my career, and hopefully, it’s not decided for me. When that time comes, I will handle it how I need to handle it and run as hard as I can run.’’

And when he exits the car, he’ll likely hear those cheers saved for very few.