SPARTA — After 11 years of marriage, Cathy and Chris Hatch divorced three years ago.
Yet the exes felt strongly enough about one thing that they traveled together from their homes in Columbia, Tenn., to Kentucky Speedway Saturday night.
They were saying goodbye to Jeff Gordon.
"We had to see Jeff Gordon before he retired," Cathy Hatch said.
In the hours before the green flag fell on the fifth Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts, it was not hard to find others acting on the same sentiment.
After an iconic NASCAR career — 92 race wins; four season championships; five Brickyard 400 and three Daytona 500 wins — Gordon, 43, announced in January that 2015 would be his final full-time season.
Jeff and Sarah Kent of Clarksville, Tenn., brought their 3-year-old son, Nathan, to his first Sprint Cup race Saturday.
When Nathan was born, he came home to a nursery decorated with a full-on "Jeff Gordon" motif. Nathan's mom once had Gordon autograph her ankle, "then I got it permeated," she said.
So you will understand why Sarah Kent says "I wanted my son to see Jeff Gordon race."
Alex Seaford, 16, of Bellefontaine, Ohio, had never watched a NASCAR race on TV until the 2005 Daytona 500. Gordon won it, and Seaford had found his favorite driver.
Before Saturday, Seaford had never seen a Sprint Cup race in person. Julie Seaford, Alex's mother, said it is difficult for the family to attend a NASCAR event because Alex's younger brother, Ben, 13, is autistic.
"But since this is Jeff Gordon's last year, we knew we needed to get (Alex) here," Julie Seaford said. "So grandma and grandpa are watching little brother so we could come down and check it out."
Longtime Jeff Gordon fans have ridden an emotional roller coaster with the driver. When the Californian (by way of Pittsboro, Ind.) broke into Sprint Cup full-time in 1993, he broke the NASCAR mold.
Gordon was conspicuously not Southern. The original Young Gun, Gordon was 21 in his first full-time Cup season, 23 when he won his first season championship (1995) and 24 when he won his first Daytona 500 (1997).
"Being someone who was not from the South, making his name in NASCAR was quite amazing to me since I'm also a Californian," said Susan Sowersby of LaQuinta, Calif.
Said Dewayne Ludwig of Chetopa, Kansas: "(Back then), maybe (Gordon) was young and cocky. I used to be young and cocky, too, you know?"
By the end of the 1999 Cup season, Gordon had accumulated 49 wins and three championships. The driver — and his fans — were reviled by backers of other drivers.
"All the girls liked him," Cathy Hatch said of the young Gordon. "I thought he was really hot. He was really cute. But the guys, they didn't like him. None of the guys liked him. They called him names."
The Gordon of the 2000s has proven more sympathetic — perhaps because he hasn't won nearly as much.
His only season championship of the 21st Century came in 2001. Since the end of the 2007 season, Gordon has won "only" 11 Cup races. Meanwhile, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports protégé, Jimmie Johnson, has eclipsed him with six championships.
"Back then, everybody hated (Gordon)," Brad Spicer of Lubbock, Texas, said of the 1990s. "It's easier now because everybody likes him. Now, everybody feels sorry for him because of Jimmie."
Gordon came to Kentucky Speedway with a chance to make a final piece of history. Kentucky was the only current Sprint Cup track on which Gordon has never won. No driver has ever won on all active Cup Series tracks.
Brian Gideon Sr. of Burlington (Boone County) and his son, Brian Jr., 18, were both decked out in Gordon T-shirts Saturday night. "I'd probably rather have (a win at Kentucky) than the championship," said Gideon Sr.. "Just to say he did it."
Added Mark Brewington of Burkesville (Cumberland County): "It would be an awesome way to go out."
However Gordon bows out, his fan base is wrestling with saying goodbye.
Jennifer Spicer, 33, of Lubbock, Texas, said she thinks she will transfer her allegiance from Gordon to Kyle Larson, 22, for 2016.
"He's young," Spicer said of Larson. "I want someone young ... because I don't want to have to go through the breakup (with a driver) like we are going through with Gordon — because it's hard and sad."