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Jeff Gordon: A Conversation with NASCAR's Real-Life Superhero

Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports

From 4-time Cup champion to Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman, Gordon remains at the front of the pack

First things first. Let's ask and answer everybody's primary question about Jeff Gordon being named vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports: Is Gordon replacing Rick Hendrick? The answer is an emphatic no.

Hendrick, the founder of the most successful team in NASCAR history, isn't going anywhere. "He's not backing down," Gordon told Athlon Sports' Matt Crossman in a wide-ranging interview a few days after Kyle Larson won Hendrick's 14th Cup championship and 280th overall race, both the most ever in NASCAR. "He's very involved, very engaged."

Gordon, who won 93 of those races along with four championships as a driver and seven as co-owner of Jimmie Johnson's car, did not officially start as vice chairman until January 1, but he was working behind the scenes at Hendrick long before that, showing up at the office regularly for meetings and being involved in key decisions, such as the hiring of Johnson and Larson. He has been an equity owner in the company for more than 20 years.

In his new full-time role, he will focus on the team's competition and marketing efforts and will serve as Hendrick's representative on NASCAR's diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

Gordon gave this interview via Zoom from his office on Hendrick's suburban Charlotte campus, which he was decorating with dozens of pictures tracing the team's history — from the first win (1984, Martinsville) to the most recent (Larson at the 2021 season-ending race at Phoenix).

Gordon's goal will be to ensure that his office never runs out of artwork. (Interview has been edited for space.)

Crossman: What is your job going to be?

Gordon: First and foremost, you look at my history here, how long I've been a part of this and how much passion I have for the people here. That's what Rick's taught me more than anything, how important bringing people together is and creating an environment that is a great place to work — a place to showcase your talents, and a place to be a part of a competitive sport like NASCAR. All I want to do is continue to complement what Rick has built here and what I've been a part of for all these years.

What I'm loving right now is, as a driver, I had my group of guys and, from time to time, I'd interact with others, but now I'm getting to go to all these different sections of the campus and spend more time with all these people I've known for years but haven't really known on this level.

With that said, the job is, how do I just help keep that vision going that he set forth?

Crossman: You guys are coming off one of the best seasons in history. You're already at the top. The cynic in me says there's nowhere to go but down. How do you stay on top?

Gordon: I've been a part of not just this organization but a part of motorsports long enough to know that you can't stay on top forever. You have to ride the wave when you've got the momentum behind you. That's what we have right now, coming off of back-to-back championships. This one was a dominant season.

Now we've got to transition over to a completely new car. Even prior to Phoenix, the buzz around the shop was taking joy in Gen 6 and the number of chassis that were built here by us. It was 1,278 or something like that. So we have chassis No. 1 and chassis No. 1,278. There's a lot of pride around here of what we accomplished with that car. So we want to celebrate that. But we also recognize that we're embarking on a whole new challenge, and we pride ourselves on taking on those challenges. And we want to be the best no matter what the car is, who's developed and designed it.

I just got off the phone with Cliff Daniels (Larson's crew chief). They want to celebrate what they just accomplished, but he's motivated and driven, too. I want to go do it again. Now I know what it feels like to win the championship. As excited and as happy as he has been to celebrate that championship, he's already thinking, how do we get this Next Gen car, not just on the track, but at the level that we're used to? That's the mindset of the people we have.

So here's the way I look at it: I just want to do everything I can, just like Rick always has done, to make sure all the resources are there, the right people are connected, whatever tools we need, we get them in the right hands and let them go do what they do best.

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Crossman: I don't know if you know this, but you turned 50 this year.

Gordon: Unfortunately I do (laughs).

Crossman: In reviewing your career, I think is the first time you've had a quote-unquote real job …

Gordon: No doubt about it.

Crossman: So why are you doing this? You could retire to some island somewhere.

Gordon: It goes back to 2000. That's when Rick and I agreed on a lifetime contract. Conversations were happening of, what is the future for the 24 car and Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick and the organization?

I doubled down. I went to Rick and I said, you've given me the most amazing opportunity. I don't want to go anywhere.

I wanted to do everything I could to — I don't want to say lead the team because I felt like the crew chief and the car owner really lead the team — but as a driver after winning a few championships, I did consider myself as a very significant part of the team. And luckily, so did Rick, and he said, Listen, what can we do? I want you. I don't want you to go anywhere. You don't want to go anywhere. Let's talk about it. And we talked about some equity in the race team, and he said, Hey, if you want that, I'd like to see you be a lifetime driver.