When he first began NASCAR was still a relatively unknown sport outside the South. This brash young mustached kid had some nerve trying to break into a sport then dominated by Southern boys and traditional Southern values. His appearance in the early part of the 1990s was the cause of much disdain among the mainly Southern NASCAR fans. How dare this kid, born in California and claiming Indiana as his home, invade our sport and actually win.
When Jeff Gordon began his career, you couldn’t see every race on TV, and certainly not see every single moment cars were on the track. Cable TV was around, but not any sort of full-time NASCAR coverage like is seen today. Races were seen in their entirety, ESPN had been doing that since the early 1980s, but there wasn’t much beyond that.
There had been others from outside the South who had raced in NASCAR; but those drivers came during a time when few races were broadcast on TV. You either saw the race in person, listened to it on an AM radio or read about it in the newspaper. Tim Richmond from Ohio had stormed into the sport in the 1980s but his life and legacy was cut short when he died in 1989.
In some ways, then, the timing for Gordon was perfect. More and more races were being broadcast live, and the stage was being set for the young kid to show the talent he had behind the wheel. He made his first start in NASCAR’s top touring division in 1992 at Atlanta. It was the same race that was the last for the legendary Richard Petty. He started that race 21st and crashed out coming home 31st. No one knew at the time that while one legend was retiring, another legend was just getting started.
Gordon had won his first NASCAR race earlier in 1992 at Charlotte in the second tier, then Busch, now Xfinity series where he had made his first NASCAR start at Rockingham two years prior. It would take a full winless season, he did score seven top fives and his first pole, before Jeff Gordon would win his first race in the top series, again at Charlotte, beating Rusty Wallace who had led the most laps that day. From there it wasn’t long before Gordon was taking NASCAR by storm. He won seven races, along with his first of four titles, in 1995. Suddenly everyone was paying attention to Jeff Gordon.
People who had never watched a NASCAR race or those from outside the South who had once cheered for Richmond, started watching the young kid from Pittsboro Indiana dominate Sunday afternoons, beating men who had only years before won those very same races on a consistent basis. Those people who once cared less about NASCAR started to take an interest as Gordon began beating those men at their own game. He won 33 of the 96 races run from 1996-1998, adding two more titles and setting up a rivalry between him and another legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. who had already won seven titles by 1995, was NASCAR’s most popular driver, and was considered by many to be the South’s favorite son.
So it was that a fierce contest between the South’s favorite son and the still young kid from outside the South came about. It started in that 1995 season when the man known as the Intimidator won five races, as Gordon won seven and that first title.
“That created a rivalry among our fans and somewhat among ourselves as well,” Gordon said earlier this season.
There were two sides to the contest however. The public, on-track battles that stirred fans emotions and the relationship the two had outside of the racing.
“At the racetrack, he had that demeanor of ‘The Intimidator,’ and he showed it on the track, walking down pit road, anywhere around the track and the media center,” Gordon said. Away the public and the media however it was a totally different relationship, “it was almost like we weren’t even competitors.”
Earnhardt never revealed any racing secrets that would help Gordon beat him on the track, but “when it came down to business or the sport in general, he was an open book,” Gordon said, “That part of the relationship was fantastic.”
Gordon would go on to win three more titles; his last coming in 2001 the year that Earnhardt lost his life in a last lap crash in the season opening Daytona 500. He has also won 93 races eclipsing the record of 76 by his friend, mentor and once close rival Earnhardt.
He has battled demons away from the track, enduring a messy divorce from his first wife in 2001 and enduring criticism that perhaps he had lost his edge, particularly in the years from 2008-2010 when he won only once race. But during that time he also met the love of his life, a former model, and has celebrated the births of his two children. All of this as the popularity of NASCAR grew to once unimagined levels. That was in large part due to the groundwork laid by Gordon.
What Gordon has done for the sport almost out shines what he has done on the track. NASCAR has grown to a sport that is now seen, and loved, all over the world. The champions have come from outside the South and those drivers who race week to week in NASCAR today are from not only California, but places like Washington State and New Jersey. And much of that is thanks for Jeff Gordon.
Fans no longer boo Gordon as they did in the glory years of the Gordon-Earnhardt battles. He has been accepted for what he is; a legendry driver who has done more for the sport that many others have. He raced for the final time as a full time driver Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and had one last shot at a title. He came up short finishing his final race sixth and finishing third in the standings.
“To get an opportunity to race at this level, to have the success that I’ve had, to have the sponsors that we’ve had and to have the fans that we have,” Gordon said after his final race Sunday night. “The first one to the car was the team and Rick Hendrick and then my family. That is all that really matters to me. Those people are so important to me and make this all worthwhile. I told everybody before the race that no matter what we are going to be happy and celebrate. That is exactly what we are going to go do.”
The outcome of Sunday’s race doesn’t really matter, Jeff Gordon leaves NASCAR on top and leaves the sport in a much better place then when he arrived. As he made his last start Sunday, no one knows who the next young racer will be that will vault to legendary status. There could be names with famous racing fathers such as Elliott or Blaney, or with names such as Jones or Buescher. No matter who it is, all will have been given the chance to do so thanks to the brash young mustached kid who changed the NASCAR world forever.
“People are not going to really understand what Jeff Gordon meant to this sport until a few years down the road when you really look back and you think about all the doors he opened and TV and sponsors and brought this sport to a whole new level,” Gordon’s team owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday. “What he did for me and my family and our company, it’s obvious; 93 wins and four championships…he’s just a special person.”
For fans, competitors, officials and the media, a track without Jeff Gordon racing on it will be a bit emptier. He’ll still be around, but the racing minus the driver nicknamed the Rainbow Warrior won’t be quite the same. In his wake however the memoires Jeff Gordon has left us and the legacy he leaves to the sport will be with us forever. On a personal level, Gordon has given me many great stories to write through the years and has always been kind and generous with his time, and for that, I thank him. He has also been a great ambassador for NASCAR and will no doubt continue to be.
But Jeff has a beautiful wife and two equally beautiful children to enjoy. We have kept him from them for way too long. He has always given us his time unselfishly but now it’s time we let him go. Looking at him while with his family we know that Jeff Gordon has found the end of his rainbow and we all hope he enjoys the pot of gold that awaits him for many happy years to come.