NASCAR drivers don’t get a lot of time off during the year.
The Cup Series season starts in early February with the Clash, and doesn’t wrap up until early-to-mid November. And in between is a 36-race stretch (plus two exhibition races) packed into about 40 weeks.
But Thanksgiving has traditionally been one holiday that drivers could count on to spend with their families.
The season is usually finished 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 the 4th of July, or Mothers Day, or Halloween.
Except in 2001.
Obviously 2001 was a rough year for the sport of NASCAR, with the season starting off with the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500 in February.
But then in September, the country was struck by tragedy with the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – and the entire sports world was put on pause too.
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 came to grips with the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil. And instead of canceling the race outright, the sport decided to move the New Hampshire 300 to the next open date – and since there were no off weekends between the original date and the end of the season, that meant that for the first time ever, NASCAR would be running on Thanksgiving weekend and wrapping up their season in New Hampshire.
Now obviously New Hampshire in November was a risky proposition. The potential for snow or frigid weather was a very real possibility, and Goodyear even had to change the tire compound they planned to use at New Hampshire to prepare for the potential cold weather.
Instead of scheduling the race for the Sunday following Thanksgiving, NASCAR planned to run on Black Friday, so they could push the race to either Saturday or Sunday just in case the weather didn’t cooperate.
But luckily for NASCAR their fears didn’t come true, and temperatures in the 50s made for perfect race weather for the season finale.
NASCAR also opted to cancel qualifying for the race to allow for the abbreviated schedule, and instead set the starting order for the race based on the points standings after the race at Richmond, the last race before 9/11.
That put Jeff Gordon on the pole – although Gordon came into the race having already clinched the Cup Series championship the previous weekend at Atlanta.
Gordon ran up front all day, leading 257 of the 300 laps. But it was another Gordon who would ultimately drive into victory lane – after a little bit of controversy.
Jeff Gordon was leading the race when Robby Gordon, driver of the #31 Richard Childress Racing car (and no relation to Jeff), drove up to his back bumper and knocked him out of the way.
The contact sent Jeff Gordon’s car into the #12 car of Mike Wallace, which spun Wallace and brought out the caution flag.
Under the caution, Jeff drove back up to the front and began banging into Robby Gordon, which drew the ire of NASCAR. Jeff Gordon was penalized, ending his hopes of closing out the season with a race win.
Robby Gordon would go on to win his first career race, and to this day he still holds the distinction 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.