Often in a 36 race season that takes the teams from the beaches of Daytona to the deserts of Arizona, all the races seem to blend together. The lap counts, the pit stops, the hotel stays, the travel all become one big blur.
This is not to say that any one race doesn’t count towards a championship or making the Chase. Or that lap one means less than lap 150. They all matter but NASCAR is the longest sports season and at times victory lane celebrations become the same.
A few times a year races mean a little more. The pomp and circumstance and the excitement of being the one to pull into victory lane mean more. They don’t pay more in the points or guarantee you a title but for a driver and their team it can make or break an entire season.
The Daytona 500 is one of those races. Remember Dale Earnhardt, Jr. triumphantly riding around the high banks pumping his fist in jubilation? His victory lane speech was genuine, it was emotional. Winning the Daytona 500 was a game changer for them and for Earnhardt.
It quieted the doubters and jumped started one of his best seasons he has ever had in NASCAR top tier series. Earnhardt’s confidence this season in is team and himself is unlike any time before.
Winning the big ones matter.
On Sunday, Jeff Gordon talked about in the final laps of the Brickyard 400 looking up at the crowd. Fans cheering him and willing him to the finish line; the big ones matter.
For Gordon winning at Indianapolis is a home game. The crowd is majority Gordon fans, you could see and hear that Sunday as they cheered when he took the lead both on lap two as well as the final time in the race. Gordon dreamt of racing at IMS, not in stock cars but open wheel.
We know Gordon’s story, we know the stats, and we know what happened but if you looked at as an outsider what you wouldn’t have known on Sunday is that Gordon is 43 years old.
A four time Winston Cup champion (Gordon would correct you that he is not a Sprint Cup champion). He has won 90 races, third most all time. He is the winningest driver in the modern era of NASCAR.
But win number 90 might have been the biggest win ever for this driver. He bounded out of his race car, pumping his fist in the air, hollering and cheering as if this was the first win ever for him.
He knows father time is ticking, he knows the laps are winding down. He knows that the window to win a title is closing and he knows all the doubters are whispering. For Gordon on Sunday all those things disappeared as he crossed the yard of bricks for the fifth and final time. The fire still burns for this veteran driver.
Father time will have to wait.
IMS is hallowed ground. The lucky ones win one race but only the greatest drivers ever win more than once; let alone five times.
Gordon is one of the greatest drivers to ever drive a race car in any form. Period.
No, the Brickyard 400 doesn’t have the same pomp and circumstance it once had for most fans. Yes, this race pays the same amount of points as New Hampshire did two weeks ago. Yes, even in time of instant gratification, attendance numbers and TV ratings those wins still matter.
Still, the crown jewels still matter in NASCAR far greater than the points it awards.
They matter for the driver who has lacked confidence that he could live up to his fathers’ and his fans expectations.
They matter to the driver who everyone has counted out and bounced from ride to ride only to go back ‘home’ to where it all began and win for an owner who never lost faith in him.
It matters for the kid from California who never thought a four time champion would spend the time after a race to talk to him. It would be a conversation that changed his life forever.
It matters for a driver whose self made family covers his car every week but his biggest win came on a track that means more than sponsor dollars ever will.
It matters for a kid from Pittsboro, IN whose family sacrificed everything for his racing dreams only to see him rise to the very top of his discipline and exceed even their own expectations.
Don’t tell any of these drivers that “it’s just a win” or it pays the same points. They would be quick to tell you the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Coca Cola 600 and Southern 500 races matter more than any other races on the schedule.
The crown jewels of NASCAR still and will always matter.