The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series record book describes Jeff Gordon’s career, but what defines the four-time champion’s career is his role as a game-changer.
Sure, the records are impressive: 93 race victories, four series championships, 81 poles, five Brickyard 400 wins and three more each in the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. There is no doubt at all that Gordon will be a first-ballot inductee in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. None.
What’s harder to quantify, though in truth far more important, is how Gordon changed the face of NASCAR and helped move it out of the mill towns and rural hamlets of the Deep South and into the mainstream of America.
If you’re relatively new to the sport, it’s hard to fathom how different NASCAR is today from what it was like when he arrived on the scene in the NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the famous final last race of 1992, Gordon’s first Cup race and seven-time champion Richard Petty’s last.
When people think about Jeff Gordon, and they think about the talent and all the wins he’s had in this era, I think they also have to look at what he’s meant to the sport and what he’s done to get young drivers an opportunity.
Back then, NASCAR was a Southern Thing. In the 1970 Daytona 500, for example, 15 of 40 drivers were from North and South Carolina and another 10 were from Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. Just two California drivers competed in that race.
And drivers came up through a strict caste system: Young guys started out in NASCAR driving for backmarker teams. If they didn’t tear up too much equipment, after two or three years they moved up to a mediocre team and eventually to a contending team.
Gordon, the Northern California native who moved to the Midwest as a teenager to race sprint cars, changed all that. In what he described as the “biggest risk of my career,” team owner Rick Hendrick signed Gordon and promised him a full-year ride, despite not having a sponsor.
It was a stunning and ballsy move on Hendrick’s part, signing a young, unproven driver to a top-notch Sprint Cup team. Privately, the signing of Gordon drew laughs from some NASCAR old-timers, who believed it was an act of folly equal to Hendrick’s insistence that multi-car teams were the wave of the future.
Despite a rough rookie season in 1993, the combination of Gordon’s ability and the mechanical and motivational genius of crew chief Ray Evernham proved extremely successful. Gordon won his first Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1994. In 1995, just his third season, Gordon won his first championship. He would add three more in 1997, ’98 and ’01.
And that changed everything.
“When people think about Jeff Gordon, and they think about the talent and all the wins he’s had in this era, I think they also have to look at what he’s meant to the sport and what he’s done to get young drivers an opportunity — drivers from open-wheel, young guys,” said Hendrick. “When I started, a young guy was 35 years old. Jeff comes along, he’s a young guy, he gets a lot of wins, and all of a sudden everybody’s looking for the next Jeff Gordon. He opened the door for so many young drivers.”
The youngsters who had the doors opened for them appreciated how Gordon changed the game, to their advantage.
“He (Gordon) opened the door for (Tony) Stewart, and Stewart opened the door further for myself and Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse,” said Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports and fellow Californian. “Now we have more drivers from the state of California than any other state, so it’s wild to think in NASCAR that that’s the case, and I think Jeff is responsible for that trend happening.”
“Everybody wanted older, experienced guys at that point who wouldn’t tear up the cars,” said reigning Sprint Cup champ Kevin Harvick, yet another Californian. “Then the next thing you know everyone was looking for the next wave of talent to be like Jeff. So it changed the way that the sport worked … changed the whole perception of how you looked at a driver.”
And Petty, who left the driver’s seat at the exact moment Gordon came in, recognized what the young driver brought to the table.
“He was the right person for the right time. If you look back at NASCAR, there’s always been somebody that’s kind of carried the deal, whether it was Fireball Roberts to begin with or Lee Petty or Junior Johnson,” Petty said. “Then it went into another stage with the Allison guys, Yarborough, Pearson. Then it goes into Earnhardt’s stage and then it went into Jeff Gordon’s stage, and now it’s probably in a Jimmie Johnson stage. Every 10 or 12 years it kind of changes.”
Petty’s description of Gordon as the right person at the right time is spot on.
Gordon’s first two seasons were the late, great Dale Earnhardt’s final two championship campaigns. NASCAR, like professional wrestling, flourishes when there are clear-cut rivalries and Earnhardt-Gordon was perfect: The Intimidator vs. Boy Wonder. The Man in Black vs. the Rainbow Warriors. Experienced, blue-collar veteran from a North Carolina mill town vs. an upstart from Northern California’s wine country. It was a marketing executive’s dream rivalry, and both drivers capitalized on it.
“Earnhardt was a huge part of the sport,” says Harvick. “But if you look at the end of those late ’90s, early 2000 up until 2001, I mean if you look at the leap that Earnhardt’s career took — his wealth and the sponsors and the things that he had — a lot of that, in my opinion, had to do with Jeff Gordon.”
“The traditional fans followed Dale and Jeff brought in people as the sport was growing,” says Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Doug Duchardt. “And they were looking at the sport, here was this new person coming along, who was articulate and could perform on the track and had just a little different appeal than Dale Sr.”
Earlier this year, Gordon said he hated racing with Earnhardt, who was just as hard to race as the legends go. That said, while each man delighted in beating the other, off the track they became friends and business partners, with a tremendous amount of respect for each other.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. met Gordon during the California driver’s rookie season of 1993. And there the elder Earnhardt told his son about the upstart. “Dad walked over and saw me and introduced me to Jeff, and told me that Jeff was going to be really good, had a lot of talent, something along those lines,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “It was interesting for dad to compliment him because dad is such a fierce competitor and rarely ever complimented any of his drivers that he raced against.”
To be an agent of change required success on the track, which Gordon served up in a big way.
“I never thought I’d see anyone win 93 races in the modern era,” said Darrell Waltrip, a three-time champion and FOX analyst. “He has done things no one ever has before and might never again.”
Off the track, Gordon was a game-changer, too. Articulate and well-mannered, he raised the bar for what drivers can do with sponsors and media. Petty established the benchmark for fan accessibility, but it was Gordon who helped NASCAR migrate from mobile homes to Madison Avenue.
No longer were drivers stuck with shilling for chewing tobacco and motor oil. Gordon’s success opened all kinds of doors in a variety of mediums.
“By doing ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Regis & Kelly’ and the cover of Fortune magazine, he brought us from somewhat of a regional deal to a national deal and an international deal,” said Hendrick. “I went to Japan and I saw trucks painted in DuPont colors with the rainbow.”
How much have things changed since Gordon came into NASCAR?
According to research firm Nielsen Scarborough, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. are among the top 10 U.S. markets with the most NASCAR fans. New York leads the way with more than 2.6 million fans.
Even more telling is the change in driver demographics.
In last year’s Daytona 500, nine drivers were California natives, while North Carolina had just three drivers and South Carolina none. That’s a stark departure from the good-old-boy days.
“Jeff has put a tremendous mark on the sport, and once he’s retired, people will look at him and saying he changed the face of the sport,” said Hendrick. “He sure changed the face of the drivers in the sport. We owe him a lot. I owe him a lot.”
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To be able to go out on his terms and to be able to go into his last race and to have the opportunity to race for a championship in his last race, that’s what you dream of.
And it’s something his competitors are keenly aware of.
“This is a moment where it’s about the championship, but it’s also paying respect to what is going to be his (Gordon’s) last race and a pretty cool moment,” said Harvick, the defending series champion. “Whether he wins or loses, the way the year has gone for him has been pretty neat.”
“To be able to go out on his terms and to be able to go into his last race and to have the opportunity to race for a championship in his last race, that’s what you dream of,” said three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. “I mean, it doesn’t matter what sport you’re in, you dream of having that opportunity. Man, no matter how it ends up for him, just to be in this scenario is an unbelievable situation for him.”
Former crew chief and FOX analyst Larry McReynolds said Gordon’s impact far outweighs a single race.
“Whether Gordon wins the race and the title or falls out and finishes dead last, 2015 is not the year that will define his career.” McReynolds said. “What Gordon has done for our sport does not hinge on one year or one race. Aside from his on-track accomplishments, what he has meant to the sport, from grabbing new eyeballs outside the Southeast when he stepped into the sport looking like he belonged on a GQ magazine cover, to his incredible work with childhood cancer, is nearly impossible to put into words.”
As for Gordon, his stunning victory at Martinsville Speedway three weeks ago locked him into a title shot. And with his wife, Ingrid, and his two children with him now, he sees a potential championship in a wholly unique light than the first four, which all occurred before daughter Ella and son Leo were born.
“This one is so much different because my final year, my final race, Ingrid and the kids,” said Gordon. “Kids motivate you in a whole new way, and no matter what we’re going to go out and be happy and celebrate. But to do it as a champion, oh, my gosh, I just can’t imagine anything that would be more emotional and more exciting and more gratifying than to look at my wife in the eyes and see that reaction from her when that race is over if we win it.”