By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
That’s one word I’ll use to define four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this Friday.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve pondered about his legacy in the sport. Everyone that’s been inducted in the sport’s biggest enshrinement have their legacies and how they stood out because of what they’ve accomplished in the sport. Gordon is quite extraordinary because of that word, transcending.
Love him or hate him, Gordon made his mark that wasn’t seen when the incredible ride began in 1992 and hasn’t been seen at a certain level ever since his final NASCAR start in 2016.
In a time when the sport was still viewed by the general public as a Southern sport, Gordon’s early success at a young age changed everything. He appeared in major motion pictures, was referenced in hip-hop music, featured in luxury product placements, even Super Bowl commercials which he had to sacrifice one soda company (Coca-Cola) to join their rival (Pepsi) to get his name and the sport out there, hosting ratings monster programmings on multiple occasions.
When it came to all of that, Gordon was the guy who ushered NASCAR to the mainstream pedestal and was no doubt a household name in the late 1990s. You can say he brought the business side to a whole new level and built his brand to what it is today.
What Gordon brought to the table was having a look that resonated the casuals and became NASCAR fans because of it. When he won 93 times, some of which resulted in million dollar victories like the Winston Million in 1997, and four championships in Cup, every one of them showcased his serious but charismatic personality.
All the greats have their way of showing their emotions when winning a race, Gordon was different than most of his time because he was animated in a way that wasn’t seen at the time. Now, it’s become common ground seeing some charisma in Victory Lane.
If there’s one athlete I can compare Gordon to that’s transcended the sport in his time, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and what he did with pro wrestling is a strong representation. Gordon had the complete package that pop culture found ideal, and it certainly rubbed people the wrong way, notably Dale Earnhardt fans.
What’s lacking today is a strong and consistent rivalry where both drivers were at their peak and had a strong allegiance of fans supporting their driver. There was no in-between, you were either a Gordon fan or an Earnhardt fan. When Gordon ruled the sport, notably from 1995-99, he was viewed as the enemy, but he was able to persevere through the hate and kept winning.
It had gotten to the point where fans began throwing stuff at Gordon’s car at Talladega in both spring 2004 and 2007. There’s been very little of that with some drivers, but not in that magnitude. Gordon just did burnouts and jokingly stated that it must’ve been either Budweiser or Pepsi cans. I can’t condone what the crowd did because it put lives in danger, but what it shows was the audience being passionate of rooting against a driver, very old school wrestling like (ex. Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall forming the nWo in 1996).
To put it wisely, no one has garnered that much heat for winning so much, not even seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson or polarizing drivers like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano have gotten that treatment from the crowd. Even when those guys get involved in a wreck, it hasn’t reached Gordon’s status. There were anti-Gordon signs and shirts, even roaring when the rainbow No. 24 Chevrolet went into the pits and behind the wall.
If anything, that showed how dominant Gordon was in his prime. There was no denying his success, and would like to know if any of those guys have garnered that much heat for being a great driver.
Over time, he would become fully respected by the fans. When he got out of the maroon No. 24 at Martinsville on Nov. 1, 2015, he came out with a loud roar of cheers, as if the stuff from yesteryear didn’t happen. It was no doubt a landmark victory in the long storied history of NASCAR.
From his maiden win at Charlotte in 1994 to that evening in Virginia, Gordon was raw with his emotions because he wasn’t bashful when celebrating.
“The Wonder Boy” wasn’t bashful when it came to his driving style either. A modern-era record 81 poles don’t do him justice because fans have known how fast he was. If he wasn’t, Nelly wouldn’t mentioned him in a rap record or be one of the Chevrolet Corvette poster boys.
Gordon wasn’t afraid of using his bumper in a time we had so many legends during clutch situations. Whether its Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace or even Johnson and Dale Jarrett, Gordon was going to be aggressive and make you earn that win, otherwise, he’ll take a win away.
What’s missing from a lot of drivers today is that mean streak where Gordon was willing to put his clean cut image and became a mad man possessed if it meant winning or proving a point.
Among those instances were the 1999 Daytona 500, when race leader Wallace blocked Gordon so much that he went well past below the blending line to get by him and Ricky Rudd’s battered Tide Ride to get by Wallace and head on to win his second of three Daytona 500 victories.
Gordon and Wallace had a lot of classic moments besides that bold maneuver that day, look no further than the bump and runs from Spring 1997 and the 2002 night race for proof.
As unpopular as it was by many, Gordon turning Clint Bowyer around at the penultimate race at Phoenix in 2012 to get his point across that he’s been done dirty long enough showcased he still had that old school edge. Gordon made it sweeter by outright beating Bowyer for the win at Homestead the following week.
Gordon was that guy when it there’s something to prove, he delivered.
Let’s not forget the No. 24 team, particularly the “Rainbow Warriors” Era. From the elite pit crew, engine builders and Ray Evernham calling the shots, they were also one of the biggest driving forces of putting Gordon in an excellent spot to win races and championships. As their goal board said, they simply “Refused to Lose.”
Now that’s a strong team ethic which people tend to sleep on these days. Never hurts to have core goals from a young team that wanted to reach the top of the NASCAR ladder and put themselves, but more importantly, Hendrick Motorsports as NASCAR’s elite.
Don’t give me wrong, HMS was already a good team, but before Gordon arrived, Richard Childress Racing was the face of GM and Ford’s Robert Yates Racing and Junior Johnson & Associates were the sport’s flag bearers.
In a short period of time, Hendrick became elite as a result of the No. 24 team, that Terry Labonte’s No. 5 team also became a threat of winning more races and championships. Without the driver and team’s success, the sport would’ve looked drastically different which is a great transition to Gordon’s biggest impact in the sport.
Gordon ushered drivers and fans that have either become racers or motorsports fans today. Not only that, many drivers gave stock car racing a shot in a time period when CART was the No. 1 motorsport in the United States.
Once Gordon became one of the top guys in the sport, it changed aspiring drivers to not live the dream at Indianapolis, but Daytona instead. Outside of “The Split,” it was also a contributing factor why NASCAR bumped CART out of the No. 1 spot.
Also, being from California before growing up in Indiana to initially become an open wheel racer, the sport started seeing more drivers from the West Coast. You had Ernie Irvan from Modesto, but once Gordon arrived and started winning, you had a plethora of guys from the “Golden State” try NASCAR and became winners like A.J. Allmendinger (Los Gatos), Robby Gordon (Cerritos) and Kyle Larson (Elk Grove), even becoming champions and today’s elite with Johnson (El Cajon) and Kevin Harvick (Bakersfield).
Furthermore, Gordon came into NASCAR’s highest level at the age of 21 and kick-started the youth movement.
At the time, hardly any NASCAR teams wanted to put young guys in the driver’s seat after seeing how Bobby Hillin, Jr. wasn’t living up to the hype and Rob Moroso’s disastrous rookie year ended in a reckless death. Once Gordon came out of the gate with a Gatorade Twin 125 victory in 1993, slowly but surely, teams were willing to back a young driver. What was once considered unorthodox, became a common ground, and you can say that’s Gordon’s biggest impact on the sport.
Overall, being a fan of the sport for almost two decades, that’s the biggest impression Gordon has left on me and I’d imagine a lot of racing fans. Not necessarily the wins and championships that made Gordon an all-time great, but how revolutionary he was to the sport.
When he gets inducted into the Hall of Fame, he’ll be forever immortalized as NASCAR’s most transcending legend.