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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Keeping Pace

“The Kid” Stays In The Picture: Gordon’s Not Going Anywhere

Jeff Gordon (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR) (Chris Graythen / Getty Images North America)
Jeff Gordon (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR) (Chris Graythen / Getty Images North America)

Jeff Gordon's strong start to 2011 is reminding fans and those in the media that is not going away anytime soon as a championship contender.

Guest Column By Cathy Elliott

I ran into a friend the other day who kindly remarked that he had enjoyed a recent “On NASCAR” column. Newspapers are printed on all sorts of different schedules, so when I thanked him, I also asked him which particular column he was referring to.
“You know,” David replied. “The one where you kind of said Jeff Gordon was on the way to being phased out to make room for the younger guys.”
Then he grinned at me and added, “He must have read it, too.” Gordon, of course, went out to Phoenix and won the second race of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season – a great moment, by the way.
Gordon has been on my mind a lot lately. I’m suddenly realizing just how long we have been together.
Gordon’s full-time Cup Series career began in 1993, the same year I moved to Darlington and began my own career as a NASCAR fan. In the intervening years, he has gotten married and re-married, had a couple of kids, and collected four Cup Series championships. His list of awards, achievements and philanthropic endeavors could fill a book of its own.
I completely understand and support fans’ undying devotion to racing legends like Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt. According to where you are, in your chronological life and in your NASCAR life, those guys were, are and always will be the face of the sport for you.
But for a lot of people, that constant presence is Jeff Gordon, and he has a prodigious fan base to prove it. In this case, Atlas did not shrug; he drove. Gordon’s shoulders were largely responsible for hoisting NASCAR into the mainstream world, where it is OK for a race car driver to not only wear a particular cologne, but to actually have one named after him, or not just listen to rock and rap music, but to have rockers and rappers as friends.
He is like a child actor, in a way. Lisping little Drew Barrymore from “E.T.” is now a gorgeous, glamorous movie star, and you can’t swing a cat in the entertainment world without hitting Neil Patrick Harris, A.K.A. precocious Dr. Doogie Howser. The guy is everywhere. We have been watching these two, and many others like them, for most of their professional lives.
The same is true for Jeff Gordon. We have watched him struggle, and we have watched him spectacularly succeed. We have watched him grow up.  
I remember staying up late one night to watch TV when I was a kid, back when Johnny Carson was still the host of “The Tonight Show.” Carson would occasionally take questions from the studio audience. On this night, a young woman said that her mother was watching Carson’s very first broadcast in the hospital at the exact moment she was born. “Does that mean I’ll die if you go off the air?” she asked.
It got a big laugh, but I can kind of understand where she was coming from. That question aptly illustrates one of the neatest things about the way fans connect to NASCAR drivers. Not only are they a big part of our lives, but we begin to feel we’re also a big part of theirs. We are invested.
So it came as a bit of a shock to me when, during his speech at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony last year, Carl Edwards referred to Jeff Gordon as a “pioneer.” The same thing happened when Trevor Bayne, after winning the 2011 Daytona 500, referred to Gordon as his childhood hero and role model. Then it hit me – he probably gave Bayne a congratulatory hug at some point after the race, but when Jeff Gordon began his full-time Cup career 18 years ago, Bayne was still wearing Huggies. Ouch.
In a different but kind of related story, on March 1, driver Morgan Shepherd chased down a fleeing thief in a Las Vegas Wal-Mart parking lot – on foot – and sat on him until officers arrived. That guy will certainly survive whatever punishment a court metes out, but he will never, ever, recover from the embarrassment of being apprehended by a 69-year-old man. Kudos to Mr. Shepherd, not only for being a good citizen, but for scoring a slam-dunk in the “non-traditional NASCAR publicity” category.
I heard somewhere that age never diminishes the extreme disappointment of having your scoop of ice cream fall off the cone. There has definitely been a focus on “maturity levels” during the early weeks of the racing season. Indications are that it will be one of the best racing years we have seen in a long, long time. There are a lot of different flavors in this ice cream shop, and each of them is tasty in its own way.
So I’m pointing the finger at myself when I say that it is important to recognize, celebrate and appreciate the present while it is happening. It becomes the past all too quickly, and we certainly wouldn’t want to miss anything.
No one can predict what the dominant flavor will turn out to be, but from what we’ve sampled so far, it’s safe to say it will definitely not be vanilla.

Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.