Jeff Gordon always did make a connection with the fans. Plenty of people were drawn to his brightly colored No. 24 racer, his Madison Avenue charm and his clear-cut talent for driving a car at speed.
Gordon took the time to connect with the fans one more time in his sentimental speech Friday night as he joined the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s multi-faceted Class of 2019. His long list of people to thank included family, car owners and all of his crew chiefs, but he reserved a segment of his time — as he usually did at the race track — for the fans.
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“I thought it was very important, and I love that they invite the fans to this event,” Gordon said after his 10-minute address. “I didn’t hear enough of them throughout the night and I wanted to hear from them. I knew I was going to acknowledge them, but I wanted to interact with them a bit. It was great to hear that reception from them.”
The cheers, and Gordon’s heart-tugging reception, put a fitting bow on a night where the 10th class of inductees joined together in a celebration of stock-car racing history and their part in it. Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, two drivers whose careers were tragically curtailed in their prime, joined two dominating team owners in Roger Penske and Jack Roush, plus Gordon — a figure whose career transcended racing and turned him into a national household name.
For the first time in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s existence, the group of five all competed against each other, albeit for a brief, overlapping window that spanned the 1992 season finale and the first five events of the ’93 NASCAR season. That cherished season-ender at Atlanta Motor Speedway in ’92 served as connective tissue for several Hall of Fame ties, crowning an unlikely champion in Kulwicki over Allison, bringing Gordon onto NASCAR’s big stage for his debut and bidding farewell to Richard Petty in his final race.
The enshrinement of Roush and Penske brought together a wide-ranging array of motorsports figures to fete their team owners. Among those celebrating Roush’s induction and his career as an innovator and master wrench were Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth — enough driving savvy to reprise a power-packed roster from the organization’s heyday.
“I’m trying to remember a night that’s been as emotional as tonight,” Roush said. “… It was a history lesson as well as a chance to renew old friendships.”
Penske’s recognition reunited a who’s who of his drivers past and present, with reigning Monster Energy Series champ Joey Logano in a group with reigning Indy 500 champ Will Power. Those current stars mixed with the famous names of Rick Mears, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, all tied to the legendary owner and businessman primarily known as “The Captain,” but also nicknamed — as his son Greg revealed at his induction — by his grandchildren as “Mr. Fun.”
Neither owner plans on quitting anytime soon, both gearing up for the coming season with multi-car efforts in NASCAR’s top series. And neither legend whose lives were cut short in the 1990s will be forgotten. Neither will Gordon, as his enduring bond with the Rainbow Warrior faithful continues.
Early on in his NASCAR career, Gordon said he learned lessons from his friendly rival Dale Earnhardt in building those relationships with the fans in the stands. Winning races started to sway the support to his side. His engaging manner sealed the deal.
“A fan base like that gets you to experience a little bit of what it’s like to be a rock star,” Gordon said.
Gordon’s fans responded Friday night, offering a power-ballad salute befitting one of the sport’s rock virtuosos.