After 23 years at the pinnacle of the sport, Jeff Gordon is not easily moved.
With four Sprint Cup Series championships and 93 career victories – third on NASCAR’s all-time list – the Hendrick Motorsports driver has achieved virtually everything there is to accomplish in the sport. But as he basked in the gloaming of a Sunday evening Victory Lane at Martinsville Speedway, even Gordon was at a loss for words.
His victory in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, achieved only after runaway leader Joey Logano was unceremoniously wrecked by rival Matt Kenseth with just 50 laps remaining, punched Gordon’s ticket for an unlikely chance at a fifth series title.
“Yeah, baby, yeah! We go to Homestead!” shouted Gordon over his in-car radio, after claiming a .335-second victory over Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Sunday. “That was huge! That was huge! I love you guys!”
In Victory Lane, an emotional Gordon struggled to be heard over a thundering grandstand of frenzied race fans; each of whom knew they had just witnessed a pivotal moment in the history of the sport.
“(Retirement) was a joke,” he teased, hopping up and down like a toddler on a sugar high. “I’m coming back next year! This is the sweetest, most amazing feeling. I am so proud of this team. You want to talk about holding back emotions; right now man, wow. We’re going to Homestead! I can’t believe it.”
The California native called his ninth career Martinsville victory, "one of the finest moments I've ever had." And perhaps more important, it created an opportunity for Gordon to author his greatest – and most unlikely – moment of all, just three weeks hence at Homestead Miami Speedway..
Coming into the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Gordon was the longest of longshots. Winless in 26 regular-season starts, he struggled simply to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs. Once the Chase began, he remained decidedly under the radar with a 14th-place finish in the opener at Chicagoland, followed by lukewarm showings of seventh and 12th at New Hampshire and Dover. He upped the ante only modestly in the Contender Round – eighth at Charlotte, 10th in Kansas and third at Talladega – once again doing enough to advance, but not much more. Sunday at Martinsville, though, Gordon answered the bell with a rousing victory that could turn the tide in the 2015 championship Chase.
“It’s never over,” said Gordon in Victory Lane. “People don’t give this team enough credit. We seized an opportunity (today). I don’t think this opportunity would present itself the next couple of weeks. We’re going to take advantage of this.”
He also spoke of persevering through the first half of the season, when he struggled to find speed and squandered his rare good days with a slew of miscues and pit road speeding penalties.
“When we went through those moments and came through it -- still talking to each other, still smiling, communicating and trying to be better -- I knew that if we could just get in this position, we could do something special.”
Nearly 30 minutes after the checkered flag waved Sunday, the darkened Martinsville grandstands remained packed with race fans, celebrating what might have been the final victory for one of the sport’s most transcendent stars.
"I don't know what it feels like to be a rock star, but that's as close as it can get," said Gordon, as the crowd roared its approval. "That's a rock star moment right there."
And even while posing with his ninth Martinsville grandfather clock, Gordon turned his focus to the championship race to come.
“This has turned into a fairytale year,” he said. “Homestead is going to be an unreal weekend and we’re going to completely focus now. We talked about this in our meeting before the race; that if we could make it through today and win, all our focus is on the Homestead car.
Gordon’s numbers at Homestead Miami Speedway are solid, with seven Top-5 and 12 Top-10 finishes in 16 career starts. He went to Victory Lane there in the 2012 season finale and has a lifetime average finish of 10th.
Gordon can win at Homestead. And if he does, he will retire as champion.
“We’ll grind it out,” he promised. “We’re going to give them something to think about. Don’t count us out. We’ve proved that during this entire Chase, and we certainly proved that today. This team is fired up. We’ve got some momentum now!
"Yeah, we had a few things that fell in our favor (today). But you've got to be there and be ready for that moment when it comes, and we were."
You can bet he’ll be ready again at Homestead Miami Speedway.