Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Jeff Gordon

Of course Dale Earnhardt fans were going to jeer at Jeff Gordon when he surpassed their hero's place on NASCAR's all-time win list. Did anyone who has actually been to a race recently really expect different behavior?

Not that it isn't understandable:

Jeff Gordon vs. The Intimidator was a genuine rivalry: two of the sport's greatest drivers battling week-after-week for the win, year-after-year for the championship. But after his death, Dale Sr.'s fans have shifted allegiance to his son, who, while by no means a bad driver, hasn't done anything to suggest he's anywhere near Gordon's class. The amount of fan support for Dale Jr. leads to a kind of weird imbalance: he's more popular than any other driver, even the (at least) half-dozen or so who are better than him. So, instead of getting to cheer his wins, his many fans are left watching Hendrick drivers dominate Sunday-after-Sunday and Gordon surpass his late rival's record. Take this resentment and frustration, add in a day's worth of Budweiser, and voila: booing, littering, and generally throwing a tantrum.

I have to admit: when I first got into NASCAR, I didn't want to like Jeff Gordon. He seemed too clean-cut, plus he won all the time, and it's always more fun to root for the underdog. But the more I watched him race, the more respect I had for him because, well, he won all the time. Gordon is just too good a driver, too strong a competitor to dismiss. Plus, while it may be exciting to root for the underdog, it is also exciting to watch someone who is the best at what he does do his thing.

My Jeff Gordon theory is that he'll eventually be seen as the last of the old school drivers - his big rivalries were with Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, and Dale Sr. - and the first of the new generation of drivers - he's not from the South, has a corporate-friendly image, has had great success while still very young.

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