On Thursday morning, the racing community woke up to the shocking news that four-time NASCAR ‘Winston Cup’ Champion, Jeff Gordon, chose to hang up gloves and steering wheel at the conclusion of the 2015 season.
Coming off a fantastic 2014 season which saw the 22-year veteran win four races, post 14 top 5s and 23 top 10s and nearly win the title, the news was quite surprising throughout the motorsports community, especially in NASCAR, as many people felt that Gordon, who turns 44 in August, still had the ability and drive to compete for titles for the next couple of years.
But it was that success in 2014 and a desire to be around his children that further convinced Gordon that the time was right, to leave at the top of his game.
“I wanted to be with my kids,” Gordon told the Associated Press. “I’m seeing them grow up before my eyes and I’m never here.”
Once news got out through social media and word-of-mouth, the sport’s community, not just NASCAR, tried to grasp the reality of the situation – NASCAR’s most charismatic driver, a phenom once dubbed “Wonder Boy” and one who stood toe-to-toe with seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt was done in one more season.
In the hours after Jeff Gordon’s major announcement, Twitter became flooded with reactionary tweets from fans, drivers, analysts and people with no knowledge of NASCAR. Gordon’s announcement was such a storyline that hashtags “#JeffGordon” and “#JGFinalLap” were seen in the top 10 trending list.
The tweets varied from disbelief to congratulatory to honoring.
But what makes Gordon standout from other competitors?
To the average person, the name Jeff Gordon comes out as a NASCAR driver who’s won a few championships. But to the motorsports family, Gordon’s legacy expands beyond just going around in circles.
Statistically, Jeff Gordon is, arguably, the most accomplished driver that has ever competed in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972 – present).
Since competing full time in 1993, Gordon has won 92 points-paying races in NASCAR’s top level, which is third all time behind Richard Petty and David Pearson who have 200 and 105 wins, respectively. He won four titles in a seven year span from 1995 to 2001, marking one of the most dominant periods for a driver in the history of the sport. He has won three Daytona 500s, NASCAR’s most difficult, prestigious and richest race. He has also won at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway a record-tying five times, the most recent coming in 2014. And he won 13 races in 1998, which tied seven-time champion, Richard Petty, for most wins in a season during NASCAR’s Modern Era.
Gordon’s versatility makes him one of the hardest drivers to defeat since he began driving in NASCAR. He has won 16 races on NASCAR’s short tracks. He’s won 12 restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega, the most of any driver. He has won 17 races at intermediate racetracks (tracks 1.5 miles in size). He is the also road course king with nine combined wins at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International. And of the 23 current tracks on the circuit, Gordon has won on all, with the exception of Kentucky which was implemented in 2011.
As a racer, Gordon’s longevity is his most impressive feat. In 22 full seasons in NASCAR, Gordon has won at least one race in 19 seasons (he went winless in ’93, ’08 and ’10). He won three or more races for 11 consecutive seasons from 1995 to 2005 (he won twice in 2006). In addition, he has won five or more races eight different times. In addition, Gordon has won at least one race with all five crew chiefs that served his No.24 team.
After looking at his numbers, it’s easy to see why Gordon’s racing legacy places him on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore along with Earnhardt, Petty and Jimmie Johnson.
Despite these numbers, Jeff Gordon’s impact on NASCAR goes beyond his countless checkered flags. His entrance into NASCAR revolutionized the sport’s culture along with the stigma for young drivers.
“There’s no way to quantify Jeff’s impact,” Rick Hendrick said. “He’s one of the sports stars of a generation, and his contributions to the success and growth of NASCAR are unsurpassed.”
Prior to Gordon’s entrance to the sport in ’93, NASCAR was primarily a southern sport with drivers like Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Junior Johnson being from southern states. Drivers were primed for strong teams and rides after entering their early to mid-30s. In addition, the sport was kept from the limelight as football, basketball and baseball dominated the mainstream market.
Gordon was born in Vallejo, CA. and moved with his mother and step-father in his early youth to the state of Indiana to further pursue a career in racing. After moving to Indiana, Gordon tore up the track by winning some 600 races in the lower divisions of open wheel racing during his teen years. His incredible success drew him a full-time ride for Bill Davis in NASCAR’s second division, the Busch Series (now Xfinity Series). After a few years there, Gordon’s success and talent was noticed by team owner Rick Hendrick who added the phenom to his Winston Cup stable at the end of the ’92 season.
Gordon entered NASCAR’s top division as a 22-year-old, an age under heard of for the time. His quick display speed and skill earned him the nickname “Wonder Boy” by Earnhardt. Just two years later, Gordon earned his first title by beating Earnhardt at the age of 24, becoming the youngest champion in series history.
Gordon’s quick success as a fresh, winning face opened the door for NASCAR to enter the world of Hollywood, with several drivers now participating in movies and shows. He also helped remove the stereotype of NASCAR drivers being primarily from the south. And his success opened the door for young drivers like Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson to get their shot in NASCAR’s premiere series – Gordon reshaped the NASCAR universe.
“Jeff Gordon is a hero to a lot of kids, and the driver I personally looked up as a kid,” said 2014 NASCAR Rookie of the Year, Kyle Larson.
Racing aside, Gordon is a business man. He has earned countless millions with ads from Pepsi, Quaker State, Valvoline and countless other endorsers. He also has equity stake in Hendrick Motorsports and is part owner of the No.48 team which is driven by his once-time protégé and six-time champion, Jimmie Johnson. In addition, Gordon also owns a wine company that has been manufacturing quality wine from California’s vineyards for more than a decade.
To cap it off, Gordon is the ultimate humanitarian.
In 1999, Gordon established the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation to help support children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses. On December 16, 2006, Gordon opened the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital at the North East Medical Center. In 2007, Gordon, along with Andre Agassi, Muhammad Ali, Tony Hawk, Alonzo Mourning, Cal Ripken, Jr. and many other founded Athletes for Hope, a charitable organization which helps professional athletes get involved in charitable causes and inspires millions of non-athletes to volunteer and support the community.
In 2011, the AARP became Gordon’s sponsor through the Drive to End Hunger program, which donates meals to hunger relief organizations near NASCAR tracks. In addition, Gordon is also a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, which helps global leaders find solutions to ending the world’s pressing problems.
“There’s been no better ambassador for stock car racing and no greater representation of what a champion should be,” Hendrick said.
Gordon’s legacy is one of fairy tales.
Rarely does one athlete have such a profound impact on everything he touches.
And yet, with one season left in the sport, Gordon can still rewrite his legacy.
Jeff Gordon still has the opportunity to win a fourth Daytona 500 and become the second-winningest driver of The Great American Race (Richard has won seven times). He could win a record breaking sixth race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and become the tracks all-time winningest driver, Formula One legend Michael Schumacher has also won five times. He could also reach 100 victories and become the third driver in NASCAR history to reach that mark. And he could become only the second driver in NASCAR history to win a championship and walk away from the sport, two-time champion, Ned Jarrett, accomplished that feat in 1965.
Great drivers do incredible things.
And Gordon has proven skeptics wrong for more than 20 years.
Don’t be surprised if this living legend walks off into the sunset by claiming his first ‘Sprint Cup Series’ title.
Have you tuned into Last Word On Sports Radio? LWOS is pleased to bring you 24/7 sports radio to your PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone. What are you waiting for?