“Oh, I remember that one.”
It would be hard for Jeff Gordon to forget the 2004 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
It was the race where Gordon celebrated a win under a torrential shower … of Budweiser.
“Well, I don’t remember a whole heck of a lot about the race itself, I do remember the finish,” Gordon recalled on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download.. “That was one of those days were I so glad we didn’t have to race back to the line. That they froze the field.”
Beer-filled cans and cups rained down on Gordon, thrown by angry Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans in the grandstands upset that NASCAR had declared Gordon the winner in a controversial finish.
Minutes before, Earnhardt had crossed the finish line ahead of Gordon to a happy roar from the fans who thought he was in first.
Earnhardt had passed Gordon on the outside out of Turn 4 as they came to four laps to go in a nine-lap shootout to end the race.
But the shootout effectively ended when Brian Vickers wrecked in Turn 3, the caution came out and the field was frozen by NASCAR.
“I was sitting there going, ‘I think I was ahead, I think I was ahead!’” Gordon said. “When they told me I was, I was like ‘Yeeeees!’
“Then all of sudden I realized, ‘Uh oh, there’s going to be a lot of pissed off people in the grandstands.'”
Four laps later, Gordon took the checkered flag. The beer storm began during Gordon’s cool down lap.
“You (Earnhardt) always had an incredible following, but I look back at those days and where the sport was and the enthusiasm and the trendiness of NASCAR and how it was just blowing up and you were such a huge part of that,” Gordon said. “I played my role in it as well. But to have me and you kind of going head-to-head like that and for it to come down to a controversial finish, it was one of those times where I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to win this race or not.’ I also wanted to get out of here alive.”
What was going through Gordon’s mind as his car was peppered with beer-filled objects?
“This is the greatest day of my life,” Gordon said on the podcast.
The moment reminded Gordon of the early days of his Cup career, when he and Dale Earnhardt Sr. enjoyed their own rivalry in the mid-90s.
“You have to understand, in 1995, people were cheering me at the beginning of the year and booing me by the end of the year,” Gordon said. “Because at the beginning of the year I was just starting to win more races and it was, ‘Ok, who’s this new guy? He’s on the circuit and he’s off to a good start.’
“Then it was me and your dad, right? We’re going for some of those wins and we were both winning a lot of races. But we were winning more. Then we were ahead in points. So once we were ahead in points, it was ‘Uh uh.’ They may have cheered for me the year before or earlier that year. They weren’t cheering for me then.”
The 1995 season saw Gordon win seven races and his first of four Cup titles as Earnhardt Sr. won five times and finished second in the standings.
“I went through a lot of figuring out why fans booed me or cheered against me or whatever,” Gordon said. “At first I didn’t get it or understand, but then I was like, ‘Ok. Their guy is Dale Earnhardt. I’m the opposite of that in competition at the same time.’ So, I got it, I started getting it. Leading into this moment at Talladega, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to win this battle with the fans because they want (Earnhardt Jr.) to win.’ But I was still damn happy that I won the race.
“So when they started throwing stuff at me … I started realizing the boos were like recognition of what I had accomplished. When they started throwing (expletive), I was like, ‘Yes, this is awesome.’ Not that I encourage people to throw things out on the track, but that is the essence of NASCAR in those days. You wish you had moments today, that they cared that much for what is happening.”