NASCAR & Auto Racing

For Jeff Gordon, a life in the fast lane

Jeff Gordon, left, and Dale Earnhardt enjoy a light moment during preparations for a 1996 race at the North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway.
Jeff Gordon, left, and Dale Earnhardt enjoy a light moment during preparations for a 1996 race at the North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. AP

The mustache didn’t work.

Jeff Gordon, then 21, didn’t look old enough or nearly tough enough to be barging into NASCAR’s premier series and scraping fenders and banging bumpers with the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace.

Truth be told, the diminutive Gordon looked barely old enough to apply for a driver’s license. Growing the mustache, if possible, made him appear younger. The bristle could have been a 16-year-old’s attempt to pass for 18.

What almost instantaneously did stamp Gordon as qualified to duel with the world’s best steering 3,400-pound stock cars in 190-mph traffic, however, was a 125-mile qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 11, 1993.

Approaching only his second career Cup start, the infectiously enthusiastic invader chased down and passed Bill Elliott, of “Awesome Bill” fame, to win the 125-miler and earn a second-row starting spot for the Daytona 500 three days later.

Earnhardt, winner of that day’s other 125-miler and by then a five-time Cup champion, did not mince words when asked whether he had seen a more skilled rookie race on to the NASCAR scene.

“Never,” he replied unequivocally. “Not in my 14 years.”

For Gordon, that was four NASCAR Cup championships and 93 Cup victories ago. Only Richard Petty and Earnhardt (seven) and Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson (six) have more titles. Only Petty (200 in a bygone era) and David Pearson (105) have more victories.

On Sunday, in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Gordon will compete for the final time as a full-time Sprint Cup driver. He’s eager to launch a second career in the Fox television booth beginning with the 2016 Daytona 500.

Remarkably, 14 years since his last Cup championship season, he has the opportunity to add a fifth title to a record of achievement that long ago forced chroniclers to measure him not against contemporaries but against legends.

And not coincidentally, though he’s 44, he still does not look his age. There are no crow’s-feet wrinkles where you’d expect wrinkles. He doesn’t have the look of a weary gunfighter at high noon, or a grizzled ship’s captain sailing into a storm. He still looks fresh, vibrant, relevant. And he is.

Gordon almost reverted to the giddy joy of a teenager when he claimed victory No. 93 and his ninth on the 5.26-mile track at Martinsville, Virginia, three Sundays ago to secure his spot in the championship final four.

That emotion-charged triumph, celebrated with wife Ingrid and children Ella and Leo, could serve as a fitting climactic tribute.

But he has a chance at Homestead, in a championship Chase showdown with three others, to write a true storybook ending and leave on top. Defending champion Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. will engage Gordon in a race within a race for stock-car racing’s biggest prize.

Gordon’s farewell carries the tiniest of asterisks. He has not slammed the door on the possibility he could drive in the odd one-off Cup race in the future. But he insists convincingly that he has no actual plans to do so.

Gordon must have emerged from the womb clutching an imaginary steering wheel and making “vroom, vroom” sounds. If ever a driver was born to race, he’s the one.

That day he won the 125-miler at Daytona, he was asked when he became serious about racing. “I was serious when I was 5,” he said unhesitatingly. “But, professionally,” he continued with a pause, “when I was actually making a couple dollars here and there in a sprint car, I was 13 and a half.”

John Bickford, his stepfather, put Gordon in a motorized quarter-midget when he was 4 and a half. He dominated. Over the next decade, he claimed three national titles in quarter-midgets and four in go-karts.

When the kid had no worlds left to conquer at that formative level, Bickford read about a 14-year-old in Indiana who was allowed to race sprint cars against adults. He packed the family and moved it from Vallejo, California, to tiny Pittsboro, outside Indianapolis, to accelerate Gordon’s career path.

Gordon became the teen sensation on ESPN’s Saturday Night Thunder telecasts of midget and sprint-car races on Midwest short tracks.

By 1992, Gordon had moved into NASCAR’s second-tier Busch Grand National (now Xfinity) series. Rick Hendrick, for whom Gordon has driven his entire Cup career, has told the story dozens of times.

During the Busch race at Atlanta, Hendrick and a friend were walking toward a track-side suite within view of the racing action, and they stopped to watch a few laps.

“Jeff was smoking the tires, his car was so loose,” Hendrick has related. “I nudged the guy who was with me and said, ‘Watch this. He’s going to bust his tail next lap.’ ”

Within a few laps, Hendrick recognized that he was watching a special talent.

Hendrick thought Ford Motor Company had Gordon wrapped up. Andy Graves, a friend of Gordon’s, worked for Hendrick, and Hendrick recalled saying to Graves one day, “Too bad Jeff has a contract.”

Graves replied, “He doesn’t have a contract.”

With a chuckle and impish timing, Hendrick said, “Five days later, he did.” They have written 23 years of racing history since. Indeed, it was Gordon’s endorsement that prompted Hendrick to bring Jimmie Johnson into the operation.

Gordon’s career downshifted as Johnson ascended. Gordon’s only winless seasons since that 1993 rookie year came in 2008 and 2010 while Johnson was stringing together five consecutive championship seasons.

But possibly no driver in any era has been so clearly superior over a five-year stretch as Gordon from 1995 through ’99. Gordon, in partnership with then-crew chief Ray Everham, reveled in 47 victories and three championship seasons during that span. Three times he scored double-digit victories in a season, topped by 13 in 33 starts in 1998.

At one point in the mid-90s, he could have been two years older and still have been the youngest active driver in Cup racing. He could have been seven years older and still have been the youngest with a victory. Think about that.

Indeed, it was Gordon who bulldozed a path for younger drivers by alerting tradition-bound owners that a driver didn’t have to reach his 30s with a decade of dues-paying at lower levels of competition to succeed in the major league.

Just past midseason in 1997, Ford had managed 11 victories and Chevrolet seven. All seven were scored by the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. Darrell Waltrip noted, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that NASCAR — in its attempt to balance the manufacturer competition — couldn’t make enough aerodynamic rules to keep Gordon out of victory lane but the sanctioning body was “keeping the rest of us [Chevy drivers] from winning.”

Evernham once noted, “I don’t know what he’s got [that sets him so far above and beyond], but if people could answer that, there would be a lot more Michael Jordans and Joe Montanas and Jeff Gordons.”

Maybe no race better depicted Gordon’s elevation to No. 1 than the 1997 Daytona 500. Within 30 miles of the checkered flag, Elliott led as Earnhardt tried to fend off Gordon for second.

Gordon’s mission: Tailgate Earnhardt’s black No. 3 so tightly that Earnhardt’s car would lose downforce on the rear deck, become unwieldy and force the Intimidator to get out of the gas. But Earnhardt stubbornly refused to lift off the gas and finally slammed the concrete.

Gordon kept control as Earnhardt’s caroming Chevy bounced off the No. 24. Behind them, Dale Jarrett had no escape and smacked the No. 3 into a violent flip and roll.

This was the race in which Earnhardt walked to the ambulance, looked back to notice that the car had all four wheels and returned to instruct a member of the wrecking crew to try to fire the engine.

The engine roared to life. Earnhardt told the track worker to climb out, he climbed in and he not only drove the crunched car to the pit but ran slow laps to be around at the checkered flag.

After Gordon outdueled Elliott and began celebrating the victory, he took note of what was happening in his rearview mirror. “I see that mangled black ‘3’ car come driving up. I was like, ‘Oh-oh,’ ” he said later to laughter.

“But [Earnhardt] gave me the thumbs-up sign and went like this [thumb and index finger forming a circle], and I thought that was pretty cool.”

Possibly that race, in which at age 25 Gordon supplanted Richard Petty as the youngest winner of the sport’s crown-jewel event, could be portrayed as a passing of the torch.

But for that, it’s more fitting to go back to Gordon’s very first Cup race in Atlanta in November 1992. Why? That also was Richard Petty’s very last race.

Consider that Petty’s last of 200 victories came in July 1984. Weigh that against the possibility Gordon could exit celebrating a fifth championship. That’s like a career-ending walk-off home run or a Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass with the clock at 0:01.

A fairy tale? Don’t discount it.

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