by Julian Spivey
I knew from the moment Jeff Gordon announced that he would be retiring at the end of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season that I would have to go to a race to see him compete one more time.
The decision was made to go to Kansas Speedway during the NASCAR Chase for the Championship playoffs in mid-October. I knew from the start it would be an interesting trip for me, not necessarily because I’d be seeing Gordon race for a final time, but because I didn’t know what to expect.
Sure, I’ve been to three NASCAR races prior to Kansas, but all three of those were restrictor plate tracks (Daytona once in 2009 and Talladega in back-to-back years of 2013 and 2014). As anybody who watches NASCAR knows, the racing is completely different at Daytona and Talladega from any other track in the sport, because the restrictor plates keep the cars bound together in an almost 200 mph pack that resembles a traffic jam on a three lane road. This style of racing always provides excitement with fantastic and close finishes and the unfortunate constant threat of “The Big One,” a wreck that can take out anywhere from 10 to 25 cars in one fell swoop. This makes restrictor plate racing a nail-biting event from start to finish. I knew based on watching races for more than half of my life now that Kansas Speedway couldn’t possibly be as entertaining as Daytona or Talladega – in fact, two of the three races I’ve been to provided what I consider to be two of the greatest finishes in NASCAR history: Daytona in 2009 and Talladega in 2013.
I was admittedly nervous about the Sprint Cup Series race for Sunday the entire week leading up to it. The race on the previous weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway and just the entire season really, especially at mile and a half tracks (which Kansas Speedway is) has been incredibly boring and uncompetitive due to a poor racing package that NASCAR is desperately trying to fix and seemingly has for the 2016 season. This package has allowed drivers to get out to the lead in what is known as “clean air” and thoroughly dominate races because the competitors behind him are unable to catch up to him or pass. The 2015 NASCAR season has been, without a doubt, the most boring season in the 15 years I’ve been dedicated to the sport as a fan. I’ve more than once this season questioned why I was even tuning in – it really is a force of habit though and I’m not sure I could tune out even if I tried, but luckily for me I’ve been able to DVR some of the events and save myself some viewing pain.
So, my nervousness about the racing at Kansas Speedway had to do with the actual racing itself and nothing to do with seeing Jeff Gordon race for one last time – although he has struggled more than some in the current package. It was more about whether or not my wife, Aprille, and I had wasted a ton of money to see an event that we’d possibly want to sleep through, especially with us not being in the best of financial times.
There was one thing about the trip that would be incredibly unique from the three previous NASCAR events I’ve attended – thanks to my wife’s contacts freelancing for a company affiliated with the sport we got to receive Hot Passes for the event. A Hot Pass gives you almost full access to a NASCAR event. It allows you into the garage area in the infield, right in front of all of the action for the sport’s practices and up-close-and-personal sights of your favorite drivers, crew men and owners. It’s not unusual to just walk past a legend of the sport (this happened more times than I can count over my three days at Kansas Speedway) or even share a urinal next to one in the infield restroom (this did not happen, but I’ve heard stories and they’re almost always awkward). It allows you the opportunity to get autographs from your favorite drivers and on the first day in the garage alone my wife and I must have gotten double digit number of autographs ranging from our favorite drivers to NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton.
It’s incredible watching NASCAR practice from the garage area. The cars are zipping by you rapidly one after another, so close that if you wanted to (and were daring enough to risk losing your privilege) you could reach out and touch them as they drove by. There were more than a couple of times where names like Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and even my all-time favorite Jeff Gordon almost backed up into my wife and I while exiting their garage stalls.
Hot Passes aren’t exactly given out like candy at NASCAR events, but there are quite a lot of people who have access to them – meaning the small garage space is jam-packed like a can of sardines full of fans watching very closely amongst the 43 teams trying to do their jobs. Many times during the practices, especially during Sprint Cup practice, I worried about whether or not I was in the way – but the truth of it is that all of us with Hot Passes were essentially in the way. I remarked on more than one occasion to my wife that I bet the drivers and especially the crew members trying to work their way through the crowd from the haulers to the garage stalls hated everything about Hot Passes. There was even a moment during one of the Sprint Cup practices where Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, probably the greatest crew chief in NASCAR history, was coming down the ladder from atop the No. 48 hauler where he was watching his driver make laps, and tapped me on the right shoulder with his clipboard because I was accidentally blocking his way to the garage. That’s how close you are and every second of it is fascinating.
It’s incredible access that you can’t get in any other sport. I have likened it to being able to stand on second base at a baseball stadium in the middle of batting practice – it’s just not going to happen anywhere else.
It wasn’t too long after arriving in the garage area on Friday, our first day at the track, when I saw my racing hero walk right by my wife and I. I was slightly jaw-dropped, but really shouldn’t have been, because I knew this was the whole point of having a Hot Pass. My wife, more outgoing than I am by quite a lot, took off after Jeff Gordon without saying anything – she just grabbed a never before used No. 24 hat I had and went up to him to get it autographed, which he did. I was able to come to my senses enough to snap a photograph of this happening. When she returned with the signed hat she told me I should’ve gone up to him. I told her I didn’t even know she was going to do so, until she had already done it and that I didn’t really want to bother the guy while he was busy. I hoped there would be a moment where I could try to get his autograph myself after he was done with practice. I grabbed one of his hero cards, a small poster of the driver, and patiently waited. Following practice he walked over to his hauler, where I was waiting and signed a few autographs including the hero card I had grabbed. It was instantaneously my favorite moment of the entire weekend – and this was only minutes after I had taken a photograph with another one of my all-time favorite drivers and current NBC analyst Jeff Burton – and I’m so thankful Aprille photographed the whole thing.
The Xfinity Series, a sort of NASCAR minor league that helps to get younger drivers an audition to the Sprint Cup Series, garage was a lot of fun. It wasn’t as packed as the Sprint Cup garage, because most people with Hot Passes seemingly just wanted to stay with the “big boys,” but this made it easier to have access to up-and-coming drivers like Chase Elliott, the 2014 Xfinity Series champion, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. and Chris Buescher, who currently leads the 2015 Xfinity standings. A great moment in the Xfinity garage occurred when one of NASCAR’s most famous team owners of all-time Jack Roush walked by and I asked him for his autograph. My Sharpie picked that exact moment not to work, but Roush being around the garage a thousand times or more was a pro who kept his own Sharpie in his pocket. I got to shake Buescher’s hand and tell him good luck in the Xfinity race on Saturday, and he smiled and thanked me. He seemed like the most personable and gracious driver of all of them in the garage area – and this was a guy leading the point standings and thus had a lot on his plate.
Another one of the truly special highlights of the entire weekend was something that even most people with Hot Passes never get to do. Aprille has previously interviewed and done an article on Jeff Craven, the hauler driver for Ryan Newman’s No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team. We walked on over to the No. 31 hauler and Craven graciously gave us an inside tour of it – showing us the compartment in the roof that you can open to see where the backup car is stored, where the backup engine is hidden and all of the tool compartments within. The first thing I noticed upon entering the hauler was Ryan Newman, who happens to be Aprille’s favorite driver conversing with crew members in the front. Craven even showed us the cab of the hauler where he not only drives from track to track, but also lives while out on the road. The cab was fitted with a cot, satellite TV and the tiniest bathroom/shower you’ve ever seen. We conversed with Craven for a good half hour or so talking about his job, previous jobs as a hauler driver for Richard Petty Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports, where he served as hauler driver for Gordon, about the good old days of NASCAR and how the Camping World Truck Series is often the best racing of all three NASCAR series.
Probably the thrill of the entire race weekend at Kansas Speedway for Aprille was when Ryan Newman popped out of the hauler to grab something to drink from the big coolers outside and Craven introduced us to him. Aprille got him to sign a little trading card that a kind woman seeing her Ryan Newman T-shirt had given her earlier in the morning. And, Newman noticing my Jeff Gordon hat made a crack about how I must be a Gordon fan because I can only count to 24. This must be his go-to quip for Gordon fans, as he’d said that to me once before at a fan Q&A at Talladega Superspeedway last year when Aprille got to ask a question and he noticed the same hat. Aprille told him about our trip to his Rescue Ranch for poorly treated or harmed animals near Charlotte, N.C. during our honeymoon in June. At some point Newman made another quip about me being a Gordon fan, to which I responded that it wasn’t too smart of him because I’d be needing a favorite driver next season and he wasn’t helping his case. I told him I might just root for Chase Elliott instead, who’s taking over Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet and he repeated the joke about not being able to count past 24. So, here I was sharing back-and-forth witticisms with Ryan Newman, who I’d seen win 17 races on TV including the coveted Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, when just days before I had some nerves about the entire weekend.
Saturday at the racetrack was another treat, because the Hot Passes allowed us the opportunity to watch the entire Xfinity Series race from pit road – an opportunity I wish every single NASCAR fan could have, because it’s awesome. You get to see the cars speeding by at almost 200 mph on the front stretch past the start/finish line, which becomes incredibly dizzying after just a few seconds watching the cars at eye level fly by and your brain trying to calculate who just zipped by and what position they were in. Watching pit stops up close in person also gives you a much greater appreciation for the toughness and skillfulness of these crew guys who are changing four tires, making adjustments and filling an entire gas tank in less than 15 seconds.
Matt Kenseth, a Sprint Cup champion running in the lower level for the day, seemed like he was going to cruise to a dominant win, but his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, also a Sprint Cup regular, ran him down in exciting fashion and the two battled hard for a few laps before Busch succeeded in passing for what would turn out to be the victory. I hate, hate, hate Sprint Cup Series drivers competing in the lower levels of the sport and quite frankly I’ve never disliked a driver in the sport more than I do Kyle Busch, but seeing him and Kenseth duke it out in such fantastic racing for a few laps and being right there on pit road for it all was something I could easily forgive for the day.
Sunday came upon us quickly, as time always seems to fly by when you’re having a blast. And so, it was time to say goodbye in person to my favorite driver. I didn’t think Gordon would have a chance at winning from the start (It unfortunately doesn’t seem he’s going to win a race in his final season), so I wasn’t expecting a fairytale ending to the weekend. I just wanted him to have a good run, to extend his chances for winning his fifth championship and the first since 2001 (which is unlikely, but I can dream) and not wreck.
From the moment the green flag flew for the start of the race Gordon immediately started dropping through the field as if his car had a parachute on it. I knew this was a bad sign. The racing overall was also what we’ve seen all season – one leader getting out into that “clean air” and dominating. It was a few different drivers, however, at the start of the race – Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano – but then Matt Kenseth took control and looked like he’d never give up the lead until it led him all the way into Victory Lane.
Gordon meanwhile was running around the 24th position on track with company that a driver of his caliber shouldn’t keep – Justin Allgaier, Trevor Bayne, Alex Bowman. His car was junk and I knew he must have been incredibly frustrated in that cockpit. Every time a caution came out his team would take the opportunity to make adjustments, but nothing was really working. It appeared as if Gordon wouldn’t finish the race on the lead lap.
Kenseth was flying. I’ve always enjoyed Kenseth, but have never really rooted for him. He’s a great driver who races others with respect, the same way he expects to be driven. I wouldn’t mind seeing him win, especially when I’d rather see that than some of his closest competitors. The only thing I didn’t like was that Kenseth was so fast and so dominant that I knew he was going to put Gordon a lap down. Gordon spent much of the race a half of a lap or more down to the leader.
At some point, Penske Racing driver Joey Logano started inching closer and closer to Kenseth on the track and it appeared as if what could’ve been another boring mile and a half race had the capability of turning exciting. They raced hard for a bit, but Kenseth prevailed and once again stretched out to a good lead. Kenseth was not going to be stopped, unless a late caution came out.
Gordon was going to be lapped unless a caution came out, even though he and his crew had actually adjusted his No. 24 Chevy up to a 12th place position it was still that much slower than that No. 20 Toyota of Kenseth’s.
With around 10 laps to go in the race Justin Allgaier spun out his No. 51 Chevy to bring out a caution. It was a moment that instantaneously turned a boring, dominant Kenseth win into an intriguing situation.
It set up what would turn into an epic fight to the finish between Kenseth and Logano. If I had Allgaier’s home address I would send him a thank you card for that timely spin.
Kenseth and Logano battled hard for about six or so laps after the restart with Logano getting side-by-side with Kenseth a couple of times, but not able to make the pass. Logano tried the high side of the multi-groove track, but Kenseth would go up the track in an effort to block his progress. With four laps remaining in the race Logano was so close to Kenseth’s bumper that the two cars looked as one. They zipped by the portion of the grandstands where Aprille and I were seated and roared into turn one. Logano went high. Kenseth mirror driving went high to block and forced Logano into the outside wall. As the two came out of turn one and headed for turn two Logano got into Kenseth’s rear and spun him out. Hard racing immediately erupted into controversy and the caution came out.
The grandstands immediately seemed to take Kenseth’s side of the event. They felt like Logano couldn’t make a clean pass and went to dirty measures to try win the race. I saw it as a driver not liking the fact that a block pushed him into the fence and took matters into his own hand. I’m definitely not a Logano fan, but I don’t take offense to anything he did toward the finish of that race.
The caution led to a green-white-checker finish. Logano would now have to battle Denny Hamlin for the win and Hamlin hadn’t led a single lap all day.
Gordon would come down pit road with a few other cars toward the back of the lead for one more adjustment and would beat a few cars off of pit lane for position.
Logano would take control of the race almost immediately after the restart and would go on to win the race. Gordon took a car that had absolutely no business even finishing on the lead lap and turned it into a top 10 car. He’s always had the knack for turning something less into something greater. It wasn’t a win, but it felt good. It showed he and the team never gave up, even when the ride was junk.
It also felt good because of the exciting finish of the race. Not only did Gordon salvage a good run out of what could have been a disastrous one, but Logano spinning out Kenseth helped Gordon’s championship chances too. If Kenseth had won the race he would’ve locked up a spot in the next segment of the playoffs, which could potentially be a spot Gordon needs. Now Kenseth, who wrecked at Charlotte in the previous race, needs to win at Talladega – always a hard task – next week to make that segment. Logano winning – as he had done at Charlotte the week before – meant that only one driver has clinched a spot for the next segment of the Chase. Everything about the end of the race played exactly into Gordon’s favor.
The weekend at Kansas Speedway was darn near perfect. I got to experience something that I never believed I’d have the opportunity to do (really have to thank my wife for that) and got to see the best run of the four races I’ve been to for my favorite driver in my last time seeing him race.
Really the entire race was a good summation of why I’m a Jeff Gordon fan – he never gave up the entire time and finally made something good out of something bad. That’s admirable. That, maybe more than four championships and 92 wins (third most in NASCAR history), is what truly makes him a legend.