For some athletes, career achievements are done on a grander scale. Every accomplishment has a little more flare, it has more of a trailblazing bent and therefore seamlessly falls into place, making a good story not only great, but transcendent. Think Jeter, Jordan and Montana.
Think Jeff Gordon.
His victory at Indianapolis on Sunday — a record fifth Brickyard 400 triumph — was the 90th of Gordon’s star-studded NASCAR career. He is a four-time Cup champion and has won nearly everything there is to win in the sport, but we’ll get to the gaudy numbers soon enough. See, Gordon was destined for notoriety from the start.
A rising open wheel talent, his intended path to Indianapolis Motor Speedway was derailed before it ever truly began. Unable to bring the personal or sponsorship money it took to break into the open-wheel big-time, Gordon instead gave stock cars a whirl and realized his true calling.
This is where the intangibly special, now-mythic story of his NASCAR career took shape. Following a couple seasons honing his skills in the Busch (now Nationwide) Series, Gordon was swiped away from Ford team owner Bill Davis by Chevy’s Rick Hendrick. Fittingly, he made his first Cup Series start in a race many point to as the most significant of NASCAR’s modern era: the 1992 Hooter’s 500.
Still considered the greatest championship finale the sport witnessed until its made-for-TV playoff “Chase,” that race in Atlanta is now recognized as a true game-changer for the NASCAR. As Richard Petty — the figurehead of all-things-NASCAR — participated in his final race, Jeff Gordon — the soon-to-be choice of a new generation — was to start his first. Nearly 22 years later the event drips symbolism.
The season that followed was marked by bent sheet metal and hard lessons learned for the 21-year-old. However, by his sophomore campaign in 1994, Jeff Gordon was ready to burst out. And burst out he did.
Twenty years ago, Gordon won his first Cup race, the Coca-Cola 600, in Charlotte. Just over two months later, he received a hometown welcome for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in Indiana. Although stock cars “invading” Indy’s hallowed ground was viewed as blasphemous by some open-wheel traditionalists at the time, there was no denying the race would go down as a defining moment in motorsports history. So what better place for Gordon to have his coming out party?
Having moved with his family from California to Pittsboro, Ind., as a teen to advance his racing career, the storybook victory that weekend in front of a quarter of a million spectators — mind, at that point he had two Cup wins, both crown jewel events — kick started a run that was unequalled until protégé Jimmie Johnson hit the circuit in 2002.
The next season Gordon won his first Winston Cup championship. Three more followed by 2001. In that seven-year run of brilliance, Gordon won 56 races, tacked on two additional wins at both the Brickyard and in the Coke 600 as well as two Daytona 500 championships and a dazzling four Southern 500 triumphs. He did so while viewed by many fans as an outsider. Worse, he upstaged and at most every turn got best of the great Dale Earnhardt — a point that drew the ire of many an old-schooler.
In fact, NASCAR’s skyrocketing popularity at the time could be boiled down to the Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry; gruff, old-school Southerner vs. young, hot-shot Hollywood type. They couldn’t have been more different in their approach or in their persona; it was the perfect duel.
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All the while, NASCAR team owners studied intently the mold in which to sculpt their own next find — and the impersonators came in droves. Few stuck, though. Gordon combined the best of both worlds in a way none of the other hopefuls could: his acumen as a corporate pitchman was exceeded only by his talent behind the wheel. Gordon was the white-hot catalyst that brought about change to a regional sport already on the brink of national prominence.
He became the face of NASCAR.
Still, 20 years ago no one could have predicted his tenured relevance, despite the obvious greatness and his penchant for rewriting record books. (Gordon himself quipped at various points throughout his career that he didn’t see racing into his 40s.) Yet, here he is. NASCAR’s elder statesman. Hot-shoe turned vet. Playboy turned family man. Playing through nagging back pain. Still driven, though now by different priorities.
“My wife and kids, they’ve never experienced (a championship),” Gordon says of his quest for a fifth title. “We're just putting everything we possibly can into it.”
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Is a title at 43 years of age feasible? Bobby Allison won the 1983 Cup at the age of 45, becoming the oldest champion in the sport’s history. Of course, Allison did so competing in a format that rewarded sustained success throughout a season. For the last decade, Gordon has battled a system focused on garnering television ratings more than placing a premium on crowing the most deserving driver a champion.
“I’m not thinking about anything else, in all honesty, other than going race-to-race in this season to try to battle for a championship,” Gordon says. “That’s the only thing I’m thinking about at this point.”
Maybe under NASCAR’s newest iteration of the Chase, crown jewel wins are more meaningful than championships. The biggest and best teams roll out their primo stuff for the most prestigious races — and beating everyone at their best is the true mark of a champion. Much more so than surviving a concocted Roulette wheel of a playoff scheme.
Regardless, a title is still viewed as the ultimate endgame. If Gordon, who has led the point standings for 14 consecutive race weeks, can capture championship No. 5 this season, he’ll do so in a manner epitomizing his 1994 and 2014 Brickyard wins: by making good stories great and great stories transcendent.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.