When I was 12 years old, I was in the stands at North Carolina Motor Speedway for Busch Series qualifying when this 19-year-old kid flirted with the pole for the AC Delco 200. Mark Martin ended up beating him out for the top spot for a race that featured 12 Buicks and 11 Oldsmobiles.
That kid from California did not fair too well in his first NASCAR start at Rockingham, finishing 39th out of 40 cars after an early crash. Jack Ingram, Patty Moise finished higher than he did. Quite the inauspicious beginning to a career that would turn out to be one of the best in the sport’s history. On the bright side, he made the race. Joe Nemechek, Jimmy Spencer and local racer Barry Bostick did not.
That was 1990 and, 25 years later, Jeff Gordon capped a career last weekend that leaves him third behind Richard Petty and David Pearson on the NASCAR Cup all-time wins list and four championships.
A fifth title eluded him at Homestead, but he went into the final race with a chance to go out on top. He won the fourth-to-last race of his career. Compare that to Petty, who rode for seven years in the twilight of his career without a win. Coincidentally, Gordon’s first Cup race was Petty’s last.
Gordon won his first Cup race in a Chevy Lumina. He won his first championship in a Monte Carlo. He won three Busch races in a Ford Thunderbird. He did more than flirt with the Busch pole at Rockingham in 1992. He won both. Then he won four more races before NASCAR left the track. That was back when everyone hated him.
And boy, did they hate him. NASCAR fans roundly booed Gordon. He wasn’t from the South. And worse than that, he was from California. He had that terrible mullet and moustache. Before him, 22-year-olds didn’t get to have top-notch rides in Cup. They had to toil for years before someone would take a chance on them – unless your name was Petty. For some perspective, Dale Earnhardt was 29 before he ran his first full NASCAR Cup season.
Say what you want to about Gordon, but for good or bad, Gordon bridged the gap between what NASCAR was and what NASCAR is now. He has been the brash upstart and the face of the sport and the seasoned veteran. He raced against those nameplates long since departed from racing and some from production. He predates million dollar motor homes in the drivers’ lot and racecars with headlight decals. He has out ran cars owned by Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Kenny Bernstein, Lake Speed, the Stavola Brothers, Cale Yarborough, Bud Moore and Leo Jackson. He has raced against three Earnhardts, two Pettys, three Burtons, two Waltrips, three Wallaces, two Elliotts (the younger will be taking his ride), two Bodines, Harry Gant and Morgan Shepherd before he was 100 years old. Not only is he the last driver to race at North Wilkesboro, he is the last driver to win there. He was a rookie when NASCAR lost Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.
When Gordon started his career, NASCAR was, at best, a regional sport. He ushered in an era that saw NASCAR rise to national prominence. I would dare say NASCAR peaked in 1998. It’s no coincidence that 1998 was the best year of Gordon’s career and perhaps the best season of any driver in the history of the sport. Without Gordon, you don’t have Chicagoland Speedway or Kansas Speedway or Texas Motor Speedway or Auto Club Speedway.
I challenge you to find another driver who has been more in the American mainstream/pop culture than Gordon. I’d say you can’t do it.
His retirement leaves Tony Stewart as NASCAR Sprint Cup’s longest tenured full-time driver for 2016. Next in line: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. That makes me feel incredibly old.
Love him or hate him, you have to respect what Jeff Gordon has done for NASCAR and the success that he had driving for one owner over his 23 year career. From Wonder Boy to four-time champion to elder statesman, he was consistently good – often great. NASCAR will not be the same without him.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_Cagle.