ON NASCAR: Gordon, Johnson Going Strong As The Rock Rolls Back Into NASCAR

By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
It isn’t a word you hear much in conversations about the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but the battle between Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon during the final laps of the Advocare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on September 6 displayed a certain elegance. 

Two of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport went head to head and wheel to wheel at one of the most thrill-inducing tracks on the schedule. Neither was willing to give an inch, while at the same time, neither was willing to take an inch, if doing so would interrupt the precise point/counterpoint balance of the contest. 

With nothing significant to lose – both drivers were locked into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field before the green flag fell – Gordon and Johnson did what they do best. It wasn’t a demolition derby, or a one-horse race; it was fierce, respectful, perilously close competition, the kind that makes you jump up from the soda and yell at the TV just because you’re having so much fun. Switch out some fireproof shoes for satin slippers and roaring engines for a symphony orchestra, and Tchaikovsky could have choreographed this thing. It was really something quite special to see.

Gordon’s win – his third this season and the 85th of his career – moved him into third place on NASCAR’s all-time win list, behind only Richard Petty, with 200 wins, and David Pearson with 105. That’s a pretty nice neighborhood to move into. 

What was also pretty nice – very nice, in fact -- was seeing Gordon get a hefty dose of well-deserved and hard-won respect and recognition. It seems like only yesterday that he was just a clean-cut youngster with a questionable haircut, being roundly booed at almost every racetrack in the country thanks to his pesky habit of not only consistently winning, but of beating beloved NASCAR legends like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace. Kids sure do grow up fast, don’t they?

Gordon, who has had his share of amazing experiences over the course of his career, called the win “unbelievable. I'm not sure really [how] to kind of rank everything; the significance of this win today, the timing of it, doing it here in Atlanta on such a tough racetrack, battling with Jimmie, the bonus points, the 85th win, the momentum that this team has got right now … “ he said after the race. “Man, this is cool.” 

The second-place finisher had a cool experience of his own the very next day, when President Obama honored Jimmie Johnson and some of his fellow drivers at a White House press conference. The president once again professed his admiration for the sport of stock car racing, admitting that the only vehicle he usually has the opportunity to pilot is slightly slower than the No. 48 Chevy, which at the time was parked on his lawn. “I’m not allowed to drive much these days,” he said. “Basically just my golf cart at Camp David, which is called Golf Cart One. True.”

President Obama went on to compare Johnson with some of sports’ greatest dynasties, including the Boston Celtics and the New York Yankees, and to applaud NASCAR as a whole for its solid commitment to America. 

“What makes NASCAR special is the difference it makes in the lives of so many people, especially our troops and their families,” he said. “I want to thank all the drivers who are on the stage for their extraordinary success, for the success of NASCAR, and for everything that they do for our country.”

While Jimmie Johnson traded quips with the president and Jeff Gordon hit the mental math books to figure the difference between 85 and 105, a semi-retired NASCAR star of the inanimate variety was hosting a press conference of its own. On September 7, Rockingham Speedway owner Andy Hillenburg uttered a simple statement with some major impact. "I'm so proud to say that NASCAR is coming back to The Rock,” he said.

The one-mile track formerly known as North Carolina Speedway hosted annual Cup and Nationwide Series weekends until February 2004, when it fell victim to NASCAR’s expansion and realignment. Fans and competitors alike lamented the loss; Rockingham is a feisty little track, and consistently hosted some of the most exciting races of the year. That tradition will be reborn on April 15, 2012, when the track will welcome some stiff competition in the feistiness department in the form of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. 

"It's a real big day for race fans around the country, because anyone who knows anything about racing knows about the history of this fabulous track," said Bev Perdue, governor of North Carolina. The track will undergo $1 million worth of renovations prior to the race, including the installation of SAFER barriers. 

From 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, through the rural roads of North Carolina and down to Victory Lane in Atlanta, it is certainly safe to say that three NASCAR legends – and, by association, millions of NASCAR fans – have enjoyed a tremendously good week. 

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