NASCAR Motorists don’t have much free time during the year.
The Cup Series season begins with the Clash in early February and doesn’t end until early to mid-November. And in between is a stretch of 36 races (plus two exhibition races) in about 40 weeks.
But Thanksgiving has traditionally been a holiday that drivers could count on to spend with their families.
The season usually ends before Thanksgiving weekend, so those who work in the sport don’t have to worry about being on the road and missing out on quality family time like they do on the Fourth of July, Mother’s Day, or Halloween .
Obviously, 2001 was a rough year for NASCAR, as the season began with the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500 in February.
But then, in September, tragedy struck the country with the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and the entire sporting world took a pause as well.
NASCAR was originally scheduled to run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, September 16, but ultimately decided to postpone the race as the nation was dealing with the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history. And rather than canceling the race entirely, the sport decided to reschedule the New Hampshire 300 to the next open date – and since there were no free weekends between the original date and the end of the season, that meant for the first time ever NASCAR would be held on Thanksgiving weekend and wrap up their season in New Hampshire.
Now, obviously, New Hampshire in November was a risky proposition. The potential for snow or cold weather was a very real possibility, and Goodyear even had to change the tire compound they planned to use in New Hampshire to prepare for the potential cold weather.
Instead of scheduling the race for the Sunday after Thanksgiving, NASCAR planned to run on Black Friday so they could reschedule the race to either Saturday or Sunday if the weather didn’t cooperate.
But luckily for NASCAR, their fears did not materialize and temperatures in the 50s made for perfect race weather for the season finale.
NASCAR also elected to cancel qualifying for the race to accommodate the truncated schedule, instead setting the starting order for the race based on the points standings after the Richmond race, the last race before 9/11.
That put Jeff Gordon on pole – although Gordon came into the race having already won the Cup Series Championship in Atlanta last weekend.
Gordon ran in front all day and led 257 of the 300 laps. But it was a different Gordon who would ultimately take the road to victory – after a bit of controversy.
Jeff Gordon was leading the race when Robby Gordon, driver of the #31 Richard Childress Racing car (and unrelated to Jeff), slammed into his rear bumper and threw him out of the way.
Contact sent Jeff Gordon’s car into Mike Wallace’s #12 car, which Wallace spun and took out the warning flag.
Under the caution, Jeff drove back in front and began punching into Robby Gordon, drawing the wrath of NASCAR. Jeff Gordon was penalized, ending his hopes of finishing the season with a race win.
Robby Gordon would go on to win his first career race, and to this day he holds the honor of winning the only Thanksgiving weekend race run by NASCAR.
Of course, Jeff Gordon would still win his fourth (and final) Cup Series championship, and an emotional season for NASCAR finally came to an end…a little later than expected.