Jeff Gordon took in another Knoxville Nationals this past week after helping partner Axalta with David Gravel, the winner of the 59th running of the prestigious race.
Dating back to Gordon’s final season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Gordon has returned to his roots at Knoxville as a spectator a number of times. This time around he brought nine-time Formula 1 winner Mark Webber along to watch Gravel compete in the Axalta No. 41 for Jason Johnson Racing and take checkered flag in the race dubbed the “Granddaddy of Them All.”
“I always want to come and if I can come here Sunday through Saturday I would,” Gordon said. “I was planning to come here and I was in Abu Dhabi last year for the F1 race and ran into Mark Webber. He’s from Australia and he said, ‘mate I want to go to Knoxville or I want to go to Chili Bowl.’ I said if you commit to Knoxville we are going together.”
Gordon did attend the Chili Bowl Nationals and that’s where he met Gravel. The meeting is where the wheel started to turn with the Axalta sponsorship for Knoxville.
“I have been an admirer of him and saw his talent from a far,” Gordon said. “Then I met the kid and I was like this kid is such a good guy, great team and everything else.”
Capped off with a win in the Knoxville Nationals, Gravel also put the car in Victory Lane on his qualifying night. Axalta, which has been a part of one of the most recognizable paint schemes in NASCAR with Gordon and now with William Byron, also was recognized by being on the best appearing car at Knoxville.
During his days in Knoxville, Gordon spent time with the No. 41 team and even sat behind the wheel of the car in the pit area. He met the stars of the sport and also gave the pre-race speech for the drivers meeting.
“It’s been an amazing week not just the great racing…we were hanging out with guys I raced with – Randy Kinser, Kelly Kinser, Steve Kinser,” Gordon said. “It was just the coolest experience.”
The Axalta deal is just the latest Gordon has had ties with in recent years at Knoxville. Gordon has participated in Tony Stewart’s go-kart charity event at Slideways and has hosted kick ball games featuring many of the drivers to help raise money for pediatric cancer research. In 2015, Shane Stewart honored Gordon by running a special paint scheme that resembled the first sprint car Gordon drove.
The path to NASCAR for Gordon started with sprint cars. He raced a sprint car for the first time in 1985 at the age of 13. With age restrictions in California, Gordon’s parents moved to Indiana to help further his career. He raced at tracks primarily in Ohio and the surrounding areas. Gordon did make the Nationals once in 1989 and finished 23rd driving the No. 23 for McBride and Shoff Motorsports.
“I drove a sprint car for five years and the hardest, the coolest and most difficult car and the thing I probably learned the most from throughout my career to help me have the success later was driving a sprint car,” Gordon said. “Dirt racing taught me so much. I have so much respect when I’m watching these guys. I did it OK, but I didn’t do it at the level that these guys do it at.”
Gordon is a fan of all motorsports, but when it comes to Knoxville it’s something special.
“Ever since I stopped driving in the Cup Series I realized that it was a great reminder of what a huge fan I am,” Gordon said. “I am just a huge fan of racing. I don’t care what race it is, I like it. But when I come here, Knoxville changes you. I now leave Knoxville and I go show me another form of racing out there that is exciting and as good as this is. That’s the bar.”