Over the course of their careers, Peyton Manning, Abby Wambach, and Kobe Bryant transcended their respective sports. They exuded greatness, overcame adversity, and became role models of their sports. However, the 2016 ESPYS snubbed a NASCAR legend for the Icon Award. 23-year veteran of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and recently retired Jeff Gordon‘s name was not called. This despite the fact he deserved to be honoured for this award just as much, if not more so, than its winners.
2016 ESPYS Snubbed a NASCAR Legend for the Icon Award
An award of any kind is never something that is owed to anyone. Compared to the winners of the Icon Award, there isn’t another athlete that deserves it as much as Gordon. The 4-time Winston (now Sprint) Cup Champion has accomplished everything there is to be accomplished in NASCAR. A career 93-race winner, Gordon was dominant in the modern-era of NASCAR. He was largely responsible for the sport’s boom in TV ratings and overall popularity in the 1990s.
The driver of the iconic #24 car began his career in 1992, in Richard Petty’s final race. It didn’t take long for Jeff Gordon to become known as “Wonder Boy”. This nickname was given to him because of his incredible driving ability and success at such a young age. This was right around the time every race had become televised (1989). Also around the time the sport expanded to the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway (1994). The inaugural Indianapolis race won, of course, by Jeff Gordon. When people tune in and watch an athlete dominate a sport, they begin to respect that athlete and many become fans. Gordon’s dominance is nothing short of spectacular. He has become the sport’s all-time leader in consecutive starts and sits second all-time in top-10 finishes and third in top-5s.
His 93 wins place him third all-time behind “The King” Richard Petty, and Hall of Fame driver, David Pearson. Gordon has won at every track except Kentucky, and the Sprint Cup Series only started racing there in 2011. ESPN’s NASCAR ratings were strong through the 90’s and the network should be thanking Gordon for that success, not to mention honouring him for the great career he had.
Perhaps because he didn’t face adversity, unlike Bryant, Wambach, and Manning, Gordon didn’t deserve to be honoured. Think again. In 2009 Gordon suffered a bad back injury in a crash at Watkins Glen, which he never fully recovered from. This put serious doubt the future Hall of Fame driver would ever be competitive in the sport again.
Fast forward to 2015, Gordon’s final season. It took all 26 regular season races for Gordon to sneak into the Chase for the Championship at Richmond International Raceway. After inconsistent results much of the season, he came away with a very consistent seventh place finish, grabbing the last Chase spot available. Fans felt he wouldn’t be much of a factor. It was expected he would walk away from the sport as a driver who could never find success in the new Chase format.
The 2015 Chase format was a series of four rounds. Race winners advanced to each subsequent round, followed by the remaining drivers through points. With four races to go at Martinsville, the unthinkable happened. With the Vallejo, California native out in front for several late-race restarts (Gordon’s Achilles’ heel over the course of his career), he managed to stay in the lead and win. His win chlinched a spot in the championship round, a one race duel with the highest finisher grabbing the Cup.
Gordon didn’t win, finishing a very respectable third in points, but that isn’t important. What matters is Gordon proved that he is one of the greatest of all time. Through adversity at 43 years old with a bad back, he could still give his competitors a run for their money. He could win races and compete for championships. ESPN should be ashamed that such an accomplished athlete wasn’t honoured as an icon of his sport. Perhaps it was because Gordon did not achieve role model status that the ESPYs voting committee looked past him. Think again.
There have been countless drivers in the sport that have cited Gordon as an inspiration to them as drivers. This includes 2015 Champion Kyle Busch. 2012 champ Brad Keselowski tweeted in Gordon’s defence about the ESPN snub.
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) July 14, 2016
Gordon became such a role model that FOX hired him as a broadcaster because they know how knowledgeable he is and what he can bring to fans of him and the sport as a whole. Gordon’s knowledge and eye for talent even helped convince his boss, Rick Hendrick to sign some “no-name” to his team. That no name became six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Most importantly, Gordon is a role model for his charity work. No driver has ever earned more money than him and few athletes, if any, have donated more and done more charity work than he has. Gordon has put in countless hours visiting sick children across the United States and has donated an enormous amount of money towards cancer research and various children’s hospitals. He has also helped build children’s health centres in North Carolina and in Rwanda, not to mention his sponsor near the end of his career was Drive to End Hunger, an initiative to help elderly Americans suffering from poverty.
Simply put, Jeff Gordon is a sports icon. Hearing the name Jeff Gordon immediately brings the image of his either famed rainbow or flamed hood number 24 Dupont Chevrolet crossing the finish line, celebrating in victory lane with his famous sunglasses on and drinking a Pepsi. Any other NASCAR fan will likely say the same. It’s a shame ESPN failed to recognize a NASCAR legend and role model who has battled through, and accomplished so much. Not just in NASCAR but also in Motorsports as a whole.