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Jeff Gordon returns to Martinsville in different role

Happy in retirement though missing some aspects of racing, Gordon returns to the site of his last victory when he calls Sunday’s NASCAR race at Martinsville.

Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

One of the indelible moments of 2015 was Jeff Gordon's euphoric celebration after having just won the fall race at Martinsville Speedway. A victory that clinched him a spot in the four-driver championship finale three weeks later.

The images include Gordon emphatically pumping his fists then jumping into the arms of his crew guys on Martinsville's frontstretch, an emotional embrace with his wife and two young children in Victory Lane and a national television interview where he struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what had just occurred.

"It probably was one of the greatest victory celebrations I have ever experienced throughout my career, especially because you're so close to the fans," Gordon told reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte, N.C.

Gordon will return to Martinsville this weekend, but will do so in a vastly different role. Now retired, he will instead be part of Fox Sports broadcast team and not driving the No. 24 car. Sunday's STP 500 will mark the first Martinsville race Gordon's not contested since Sept. 28, 1992, a span that encompasses 46 races on the half-mile bullring.

The oldest track in NASCAR, Martinsville is a relic of a bygone era, the kind of track that used to be commonplace on the Cup Series calendar. And though the sport of stock-car racing has changed dramatically, the venerable oval shaped like a paperclip is still largely the same as it was when it first began hosting races in 1947.

Sure, Martinsville is no longer dirt, having been paved eight years after opening, but the characteristics remain as is: Its pair of long straightaways leading into tight corners that requires heavy braking and often the use of a front bumper to pass.

And few were as good as Gordon at Martinsville. His nine victories on the Virginia short track trails only Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11) all-time. Gordon's dominance such that during a 15-race stretch he never placed worse than ninth and registered a sensational 3.2 average finish.

Throughout his retirement tour last season whenever he was asked if he would race in NASCAR again, Gordon would wistfully mention Martinsville as the one track that could prompt him to return.

But comfortable and thriving in his role as an analyst alongside Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip in the Fox booth, Gordon seems content with his decision. If he gets the yearning to compete, he will presumptively satisfy that desire via other avenues with sports cars the likeliest of options.

In some ways the rigors of covering races on a week-to-week basis has helped fill the void he's experienced since retirement. Although a completely different feeling, it's a challenge nonetheless.

"There's pressure, but not the same kind of pressure and I'm enjoying that," Gordon said. At 44 years old and the place that I am at in my life, I look forward to going to the race track and enjoying myself. I was ready for that."

Then Gordon admits the obvious; that holding a microphone doesn't compare to gripping a steering wheel.

"I'm probably putting more pressure on myself than I anticipated being in the booth," he said, "but I can tell you it's not like being in the race car.

"If there's a really tight, close battle down to the finish you wish as a competitor that you were a part of that. Other than that, I really like the new role and what I'm doing and having a lot of fun with it."

As is typically the case, Sunday will in all probability feature another close race with frayed tempers and crushed cars. Those are Martinsville traditions.

And watching it all unfold will be the man who for so long was the centerpiece of that action. Because though Martinsville may itself be timeless, even the best drivers have to eventually move on.