Two weeks after their post-race salute to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are getting the chance to write the final chapter of an era of racing they were the face of.
This weekend at Watkins Glen International, due to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a concussion, Stewart and Gordon both will likely make their final starts at a road course.
This is kind of a big deal.
The Sprint Cup Series began racing at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway regularly in 1986 and 1989, respectively. Starting in 1997, when Jeff Gordon won his first race at Sonoma, and then in 2001 when Stewart did the same, the two drivers went on to become the winningest road course drivers in NASCAR history with a combined 17 victories.
Gordon has nine wins, Stewart eight.
As he’s substituting for Earnhardt, who is out with a concussion, Gordon gets a Mulligan on his “final start” at WGI. Last year, the four-time Sprint Cup champion started fifth, but an early pit stop for a leaking brake line resulted in a 41st-place finish, Gordon’s worst result in 23 starts at the road course.
Gordon has four wins at the Glen, including three straight from 1997-99. His last came in 2001, and that was also his last top-five finish at the road course out of six. He also has nine top 10s.
Stewart’s imprint on the WGI record book started the next year and lasted longer. Stewart earned his first win at the Glen in 2002. He won five times between 2002-09. Stewart won at Sonoma twice in five years (2001, 2005). Gordon’s final win there occurred in 2006.
Stewart heads into his last planned start at WGI with a record five wins, seven top fives, and 10 tops 10s. His last top five, like Gordon, came with his most recent win in 2009.
Stewart has nowhere to go but up at the Glen after his 2015 result. The three-time champion started third, his best start at the Glen since a 2005 pole, but a rear-gear issue relegated Stewart to a career worst last-place finish after 56 laps.
Stewart won’t ever need a Mulligan at Sonoma. After earning his second win at the California road course in 2005, he only managed two top fives over the next 10 years. But last June, Stewart pounced when Denny Hamlin faltered in the last turn and earned his eighth road course win and his first Sprint Cup victory since 2013.
“I’ll be all right if this is the last place I win one,” Stewart said afterward. “I’m not saying I’m laying down, I’m saying if that’s the only one I get this year, then I’ll be content. I think you’ve known me long enough, you guys know that I don’t lay down for anything.”
That’s especially true on road courses, where Stewart has the fourth-best career winning percentage in NASCAR with eight wins in 33 starts (24.2 percent). He’s the only driver among the top five with more than 16 starts on road courses. In his 33 starts, Stewart put himself in the top two in 13 of them.
If either Gordon or Stewart win Sunday, the 2017 season will open with both drivers in retirement from Sprint Cup competition and just one driver on the circuit who has won multiple road course races.
Entering Sunday’s Cheez-It 355, Kyle Busch has four wins, including two at the Glen. Nine drivers are tied with one win each.
Which driver will have a better result at Watkins Glen?