MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jeff Gordon celebrated the last win of his NASCAR career as if it was his first trip to victory lane.
He jumped and screamed and sprayed champagne as if he was a fresh-faced rookie last year at Martinsville Speedway. A scripted finish to an iconic career couldn’t have written it better.
That win last November at Martinsville put Gordon in the championship finale and ensured him one final shot at a fifth title. Although he came up empty three weeks later in the championship race, that one final victory was something to savor.
So he had mixed feelings returning to the Virginia race track this weekend, because who wants to spoil such a memory? Gordon is driving his eighth and final scheduled race at the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sidelined with a concussion.
“There is a part of me that wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back and take away from that, but at the same time, I’ve always said if there was one track where I felt like I could get back in the car and feel comfortable and competitive, it’s this track,” Gordon said Friday. “For that, I’m happy that I’m here.”
Earnhardt’s injury pulled Gordon out of retirement in July and put the four-time champion into the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. He’s had average results, with only one top-10 and seven laps led in his seven races.
But Martinsville is a special track for Gordon, and when he gets behind the wheel at the paperclip, people expect magical things. His victory last year was his ninth at Martinsville — 93rd of his career — and he repeatedly said NASCAR’s shortest track was the one on the circuit that could get him back into a race car.
He ultimately ruled it out, and said a one-off was just too difficult to do correctly, even with Hendrick Motorsports fielding the car. There’s no point, Gordon thought, in going to a race if you don’t expect to win.
Everything changed, though, when Rick Hendrick called him during a vacation in France and asked him to sub for Earnhardt. Gordon has split the seat with Alex Bowman, who will race the last three events of the year in the No. 88.
So is Sunday’s race at Martinsville the official last race of his career?
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Gordon said. “I can promise you I had no intentions of this happening, but here I am. Never say never, is all I know what to say.
“I really don’t think that I will be getting back in the Cup car again, but go ask Rick Hendrick. That really has more to do with him than anything else.”
Jimmie Johnson, the driver who landed his Cup ride at Hendrick with Gordon’s assistance, isn’t quite sure that ol’ four-time will never be back on a race car. Gordon is an analyst for the first half of the season with Fox Sports, but has the second half of the NASCAR schedule virtually wide open.
“He is one heck of a sub to have sitting on the bench when you need it,” Johnson said. “We will see. I’m not sure he is ready to completely stop. I think he was ready to get off the merry-go-round of (38) races a year, but the full stop, I don’t think he is ready for.”
Gordon’s success at Martinsville is a bonus to Hendrick Motorsports because he’s another resource this weekend for Johnson to lean on in Johnson’s quest for his seventh championship. Although Johnson is an eight-time winner at Martinsville, he’s not been to the third round of the playoffs since the elimination format was introduced in 2014.
Johnson is trying to make the championship race for the first time in this format, and a win Sunday would get him an automatic berth.
“Jeff has always been a resource, but here this weekend is even more of a resource for me than really any other time I’ve raced against him,” Johnson said. “I look at really pulling off of Jeff this weekend and using him to make my car better, to work on my techniques in the racecar, and hopefully get the best performance out of myself this weekend.”
And that, Gordon said, will be reward for racing at Martinsville.
“Obviously we want him to win the championship,” Gordon said. “We will do everything we can to work with him and also with our other teammates to try to come out of here with really good finishes and then I’m super focused on myself on what I can do. I would love to get these guys a great finish if this is my last race.”