Emotional Gordon hits end of the road at Sonoma
June 26, 2015, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
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SONOMA, Calif. -- Jeff Gordon's emotions upon visiting his home track of Sonoma Raceway for the last time as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver are beginning to hit home. If the gift presented to him by the track ever gets filled, it could help to take the edge off.
Gordon was presented Friday morning with the latest in a collection of gifts in his final full season of competition as track president Steve Page handed over a custom-painted, 18-liter wine bottle, a nod to the surrounding region's proliferation of vineyards. The vessel commemorated each of his series-best five Sonoma victories in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but also saluted his impact on the sport from his days as an aspiring racer growing up in nearby Vallejo.
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Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, PRN, SiriusXM) will mark the culmination of a weeklong celebration for Gordon and his family in the heart of wine country. The four-time premier series champion paid a visit last weekend to the quarter-midget circuit where he began his life in racing in close-by Rio Linda, paving the way for one of stock-car racing's brightest careers but also for other Californians with varied backgrounds aspiring to join NASCAR's upper reaches.
With Sonoma and the second half of the season approaching, Gordon will be visiting each remaining track on the schedule -- with the exception of New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- just once. This weekend's farewell figures to be one of the biggest heart-tuggers.
"It does feel different. It feels a little more emotional and I think that will ramp up through Sunday," Gordon said before Friday's opening practice. "This has been a very special place for me and always will be. To know that this if the final time that I will be driving here and just the build-up -- going to Rio Linda to that quarter-midget track last week that was the first place I ever raced at -- that just built a lot of emotion into what is occurring this weekend. It also adds pressure that I want to do really well this weekend."
Performance on road courses hasn't been much trouble for Gordon, who also possesses four victories at Watkins Glen International, the other right-and-left circuit where NASCAR's top division races. A poll of garage and media figures released Friday named Gordon as NASCAR's top road racer, topping fellow Californian AJ Allmendinger in the balloting.
Allmendinger -- who hails from Los Gatos, just south of San Francisco -- grew up with Jeff Gordon posters on his bedroom walls and the memories of stories from his father about Gordon wheeling around Golden State bullrings early in his career. Gordon's impact as a driver and humanitarian continue to resonate as he reaches the end of his driving days, but his early breakthrough helped turned conventional wisdom on its ear.
"The time he came in, it was more of a Southern sport kind of led by guys (like) the Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s, and Rusty Wallaces and the Darrell Waltrips, and this kid that came from California and was kind of young and brash and came into the sport and changed it in so many ways, it made guys like me that weren't from the South say OK, maybe we can get our foot in the door and get there," Allmendinger said. "Jeff has done so much. I feel so fortunate to have raced against him and be able to call him a friend that's helped me through some difficult times and be able to talk to a guy that I know has no motives. He's just going to tell you how it is and the right and wrong and the good and bad. So, it's meant a lot for all of us to have him in the sport."
While Gordon helped to expand the driver roster beyond the boundaries of the sport's Southern roots, his ascension also broadened the NASCAR talent pool to include drivers from other motor sports disciplines. Before Gordon, relatively few drivers had backgrounds in driving sprint cars on both asphalt and dirt.
Kyle Larson, last season's Sunoco Rookie of the Year, has followed a similar career arc that owes plenty to Gordon's blazed trail.
"He's definitely done a lot for this area in Northern California, and he's definitely paved the way not only for Northern California drivers but mostly dirt-track racers," said Larson, who calls Elk Grove, California, his hometown. "I think after he made it, a lot of the Cup owners started paying attention to the (U.S. Auto Club) drivers and you saw a big wave of them come over and make their attempt to make it to the Cup Series. Without Jeff, who knows if even Tony Stewart would be in the Cup Series, so he was the main guy who paved the way and gave us hope to make it."