When Jeff Gordon announced that this was going to be his last season in the Sprint Cup Series, he made it very clear that he didn’t want a “retirement party” at every stop on the schedule. While he has made some great memories at every stop on the schedule, this last trip to Atlanta brings his career full circle.
It was at Atlanta in November of 1992 that the then young driver made his first-ever start in the series. That race turned out to be a classic as Bill Elliott won the race that day but lost the championship to the underdog Alan Kulwicki, who won the title by the bonus points he collected for leading the most laps.
The race was also the last race of Richard Petty’s Farewell Tour that had celebrated his incredible career and upcoming retirement at every track. Petty’s last trip to Atlanta put tears in the eyes of many fans on that day as Petty was involved in a wreck that saw him sit out most of the laps only to return with a few laps left in a car so badly damaged that it didn’t even have its famous Petty Blue hood on it.
Gordon’s last trip to Atlanta mirrored somewhat Petty’s last trip to the Georgia track as he, too, was involved in an accident that forced him to a 33rd place finish that ironically was two spots lower than his finish in his first start at the track. In 1992 he was just a rookie running his first race and the finish really didn’t matter, but Sunday’s poor showing now has him buried in the points in his quest to not only make the Chase but to also notch that fifth title.
Gordon was also caught up in a wreck in the season-opening Daytona 500 and the two poor finishes have landed him in the 36th position in the points, 72 points behind Joey Logano who sits atop the points after two weeks. The only driver that has started both races this season lower than Gordon in the points is Regan Smith, who was named the day before the Daytona 500 to take over for the suspended Kurt Busch.
Gordon like every other driver in the series with the exception of Logano and Atlanta winner Jimmie Johnson, knows that all it takes is a win and they are all but guaranteed of punching their ticket into the Chase. He ran up front at both Daytona and Atlanta before wrecking so there is no reason not to believe that in his final year that Jeff Gordon will get the chance to run for his fifth title.
PIT NOTES: Atlanta’s only Sprint Cup race weekend of the year may be remembered more for what didn’t take place during qualifying than what took place on the track on Sunday.
This was the first race of the season that featured the new rules package that was implemented to produce less downforce and also to cut the horsepower. The pre-qualifying inspection process took longer than usual as teams were trying to push the envelope on how far they could go with the new rules package. Inspectors found at least 20 cars that were unable to pass inspection on their first trip through, creating a backlog of cars trying to get through the process before the first round of qualifying that was originally scheduled to start at 5:45 p.m. on Friday. The start time was pushed back 15 minutes, but that was not long enough as 13 cars failed to get through the inspection process that forced them to miss the first of three qualifying rounds.
If a team misses the first round of qualifying, it is disqualified from the remaining two rounds that eventually sets the starting field. Some of the drivers who missed qualifying read like a who’s who in the sport, as former champions Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart had to gain entrance into the race by their 2014 final championship driver points standings. Each of these drivers, as well as all of the others that didn’t get through inspection, was forced to start in the back of the field.
Event: Kobalt Tools 400
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (1.5 mile tri-oval, 20o of banking in the turns)
Date: March 8, 3:30 p.m.
Defending Race Winner: Brad Keselowski