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Kelly Crandall, Popular Speed.com

AFTER THE FACT: Jeff Gordon Story More Than a Fairytale

The screams said it all.

“We’re going to Homestead!” Jeff Gordon yelled both over his radio upon taking the checkered flag and in Victory Lane as he continued to jump around the Martinsville frontstretch.

It was his ninth time celebrating in that very spot, but his first this season. A win that for the longest time didn’t seem would ever come. More importantly, as Gordon emphatically noted, it locks him into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

If Gordon’s emotion weren’t enough to get you going, the fans made sure to play their part. Repeated chants of “Homestead! Homestead! Homestead!” broke out across the night as Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team continued with their post-race celebration and customary hat dance.

His fairytale ending suddenly doesn’t seem so unrealistic.

Since January, when Gordon announced he would be retiring, collectively as a group – fans, drivers, and media – there’s been the hope of seeing him go out as the champion.

That hope has dominated headlines, talk radio and social media timelines. But it’s hard for it not to because Gordon is now the sports story we all love – an athlete fighting to go out on top.

This is Derek Jeter with the game winning hit in his last appearance at Yankee Stadium. It’s Jerome Bettis leaving the game of football as a Super Bowl champion. Or Michael Jordan, the first time he retired, after the NBA Finals.

For Gordon, each weekend he enters the media center of whichever racetrack the series is competing and talks about how he’d like his career to end. He answers the same questions over and over. Can this team win the championship? How emotional would it be to win the championship in your last season?

And now, let it sink in.

Let what we’ve talked about for 33 races, nearly 10 months of racing sink in because it’s now very much reality. Jeff Gordon could potentially win that elusive fifth championship. Even better, Jeff Gordon could win that elusive fifth championship in his final season.

“Why can’t we win at Homestead? That’s what I say,” Gordon replied when asked if his team should be feared now. “I think a lot of people didn’t think we could do this, and we have. There’s no reason why we can’t do it there as well.”

It’s OK to get chills.

There have been some, including yours truly, who have made it known this 24 team is not the same we saw a year ago. Gordon was arguably the best driver in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 from start to finish. Kevin Harvick might have taken home the championship, with Gordon not even making it to Homestead, but Gordon was always the favorite and led the regular season point standings.

This year, Gordon went under the radar. He had fight for a Chase spot. Getting to Victory Lane became the wish of his fans. It wasn’t long before the tune went from Gordon was going to win the championship in his final year to let’s just hope he wins at least one more race.

Sunday night Gordon admitted his AARP team was getting their butts kicked at the start of the season. The performance was nowhere near where it should have been. Then the Chase came, and it was evident from the first race in Chicago they were ready to rise to the occasion.

Even still, Gordon has not been the fastest car, and often should have finished worse than he did. But in a format built on survival, Gordon has succeeded. While his competition continues to self-destruct in one way or another, Gordon has climbed through the standings. He’s avoided the drama and self-inflicted wounds to remain championship eligible.

Suddenly, Gordon was telling himself if he got to Martinsville he had a shot. Not long after that many others began to share the same thought. Sunday he proved to all of us his confidence had been spot on. Sunday he showed everyone it’s not yet time to give up on adding a new chapter to the book of great sports moments.

Said Gordon, “I absolutely think that we’re just as capable as anybody else that’s going to be in that final four.”

Why I Can No Longer Defend Restrictor Plate Racing

Long live restrictor plate racing.

Let me rephrase that before I’m looking at an email overflow: long live safe restrictor plate racing. Yes, those races are entirely possible to witness and they have been in the past. But following Monday morning’s violent wreck involving Austin Dillon, we’ve again been in the midst of a media firestorm, some of which call for restrictor plate racing to be removed from the NASCAR schedule.

So as I sit not even 48 hours removed from weathering the storm in Daytona, quite literally and figuratively, I’m tired.

Tired of those who would rather take the easy way out and get rid of it instead of focusing on the positives. Tired of trying to point out what goes right at Daytona and Talladega each year instead of getting swept up into the consensus of writing and producing television segments that focus on the bad.

Simply put, I’m tired of defending restrictor plate racing.

The high speeds of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway have long been fascinating to me. There’s intrigue to what appears to be a mental chess match between 43 drivers, inches apart four times a year. It’s different than what takes place most of the season, and that’s needed.

Unfortunately, when fans or media proclaim to like restrictor plate racing they’re looked at sideways and labeled as crazy individuals who like crashes and seeing people hurt.

Why? Because restrictor plate racing has become synonymous with nothing but carnage and injuries. It’s become a foreign concept to accept some individuals can like restrictor plate racing because when violent accidents aren’t occurring, great racing is.

Jeff Gluck of USA Today put a poll up on social media Monday afternoon looking for votes on whether Daytona and Talladega should be kept on the NASCAR schedule. A large majority voted yes, and even Gluck admitted he felt the same way.

But then he tweeted what backs up my opinion, that some are receiving an unfair reputation for wanting to see restrictor plate racing. Tweeted Gluck, “we’re all a little nuts.”

At that point, I had to shake my head. Not because Gluck was wrong but because by society standards its right and that’s the problem. Trying to change that opinion seems forever a losing battle.

I’m not naïve, Daytona and Talladega are unpredictable, and they elevate the level of danger NASCAR drivers face every weekend. However, not every Daytona or Talladega race needs have the big red disaster label attached to it on Monday morning.

And for the record, true NASCAR loyalists (which even as media member I like to include myself in) don’t like restrictor plate racing for the carnage. No one wants to see wrecks and cars flying into the grandstands like Dillon’s did this weekend.

Before that occurred though, meaning when the cars were screaming off Turn 4 came to the finish line to conclude the Coke Zero 400, Daytona had put on a great race. Just as Talladega had in the spring, and just as the Daytona 500 did this past February. In those events there were no massive wrecks in which over 20 cars were destroyed and the fence torn down.

No, we saw drivers put on a masterful display of driving, particularly in the Daytona 500. For a portion of the race, lap after lap they went three-wide, leaving us all waiting for something to happen, but it didn’t.

I sat in the media center where there were repeated “oohs and ahhs” at the control of the best drivers in the world. At the thought of a threat looming around every corner but watching the nerves of steel win out instead.

I followed all the compliments flowing on social media, which used the words, “unbelievable,” and “great race,” or “this is awesome.” And in the end, it seemed all, except those debating how it ended, went home happy and satisfied. The Daytona 500 featured seven cautions, three of which were for actual accidents.

What should be remembered from February while serving as the iconic image of restrictor plate racing is the picture from the flag stand looking at Joey Logano coming to the line late the event with the entire field three-wide behind him.

That is what restrictor plate racing should be and what those watching are looking for. What took place in February is what fans want to see when we head to Daytona and Talladega twice a year. Except if you read social media and watch the mainstream media the day after a multi-car wreck occurs, you would think plate racing does nothing more than injure and kill.

It’s disappointing, and it makes it tiring to defend.

But here I am, trying to. Trying to express why I feel comfortable when NASCAR goes to Daytona and Talladega. Why I want them on the schedule. Since I was a kid, Daytona and Talladega have made me excited. They also make me sweat, but keep me interested and amazed.
Not fool proof by any means, the advancement of NASCAR safety since the death of Dale Earnhardt has resulted in no loss of life on track since 2001. It’s a great stat, but it doesn’t mean we stop working, and it’s a continued effort between the sport and its tracks in doing everything possible.

Safety has no end point, and I’m confident NASCAR is getting closer and closer to eliminating injuries of its drivers and fans. Monday morning, in my opinion, was the best-case scenario for a car going into the catchfence with it – and its engine – remaining inside the track, and all fans being treated and release. Even the individual taken to the hospital.

It’s not perfect, nor will it ever be and any fan worrying about their well-being at the racetrack is not acceptable. Safety, however, did prevail on Monday morning and the crash will lead towards more improvements in the future.

It’s what they do; it’s what NASCAR has always done. And we should continue to show up at Daytona and Talladega and hope for more racing like we’ve seen in the past, such as February.

In the meantime, I’m not going to defend restrictor plate racing anymore.
It’s better to do what Austin Dillon has done since climbing from his mangled car near 3 a.m. on Monday: enjoy the racing we saw before his crash then thank the good Lord everyone is all right and we can go racing next weekend.