Jeff Gordon changed the face of NASCAR

Photo Courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports
The Sam Bass Dupont "20 Years" design.
With the debut of the Sam Bass-designed DuPont “20 Years” paint scheme this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR Nation joins Hendrick Motorsports to commemorate the beginning of a shift that changed the sport forever. Jeff Gordon challenged the stock car establishment by being born outside the heart of Dixie, and by being barely old enough to vote, yet achieving success after success against older drivers who spoke with a drawl.

Jeff Gordon changed the face of NASCAR.

Oh, not by himself, of course, but close to it. For those fans who've only known Jimmie Johnson and now Tony Stewart as champion, I'll tell you that before the reigns of Five-Time and Smoke came the adventures of Wonder Boy.

Missourian Rusty Wallace broke ground in 1989 as the first non-Southerner to win the Cup since Bill Rexford won the second championship back in 1950. (At 23, Rexford was also the youngest Cup winner.) The late Alan Kulwicki hailed from Wisconsin, but neither Wallace nor Kulwicki changed the way the world viewed the sport as a whole. Mainstream America still perceived stock car racing to be predominantly middle-aged redneck Southerners who ran moonshine on the side.

Midwesterners Wallace and Kulwicki raced their way into the good ol' boys club of stock car racing, defeating competitors from North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and other bastions of the Confederacy. Wallace started competing at 16, but was 32 years old when he won his NASCAR Winston Cup championship, Kulwicki began at 13 and was 37 when he hoisted the Cup.

By 1992, though, NASCAR sat poised on the brink of an explosion in popularity that reached well beyond the Deep South. Along came Jeff Gordon: young, clean-cut (except for that unfortunate mustache) and - equally important - immanently marketable. And talented. Incredibly talented.

Photo by David Taylor/Getty Image
Most people know that Gordon's family moved from California to Indiana so he could pursue his passion for racing, but haven't thought much about how that translates in terms of age. Despite the prevailing perception that Jeff hadn't paid his dues behind the wheel, by the time Jeff Gordon won his first Winston Cup championship in 1995 at the tender age of 23, he'd already been racing for 18 years, winning an amazing 35 events and holding five track records by the time he was six. He graduated to sprint cars and winning USAC championships in both the Midget and Silver Crown series. Although he didn't follow the paths that Wallace, Kulwicki or even Southerners Earnhardt and Petty drove to reach the top, he was the 1991 Busch Series Rookie of the Year and the 1993 Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year.

By age 30, Gordon had amassed four Winston Cup championships with two different crew chiefs, and had won nearly 70 races, more than Wallace and Kulwicki combined. Where Rusty Wallace retired in 2005 at 48 after driving for 33 years, "Big Daddy," as Gordon is now known, turned 40 last August and while 2012 is his 20th season in Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup, he's now been racing for a total of 35 years, longer than 31-year-old teammate Kasey Kahne's been alive.

Gordon won the Daytona 500 three times, the Brickyard 400 four times, and the All-Star Challenge three times. He holds the record for road course victories (9) and restrictor-plate wins (12). He was the 1997 Winston Million winner and a four-time Winston No Bull 5 winner. He's third on the all-time wins list with 85, and has lead more laps than any other active driver.

Perhaps Jimmie Johnson won more races in a shorter time and has one more Cup championship, but Five-Time still has a lot of driving to do to best all the records Gordon holds.

Gordon's committed to competing through at least 2013 and unlike many drivers, doesn't have to worry about where he'll drive since he has a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports.

In the 16 full seasons since the Californian-turned-Hoosier scored his first Cup championship back in 1995, only three Southerners have won the title. (Those three Southerners -- Terry Labonte in 1996, Dale Jarrett in 1999 and Bobby Labonte in 2000, were also the oldest winners during that period.)

The other championship winners have hailed from Indiana, Wisconsin, Nevada, and California - hardly from the cradle of the Confederacy.

Gordon's dominance focused attention outside the traditional markets. These days NASCAR's various series also include drivers from Colombia, Australia and Brazil in addition to ones hailing from Washington state to New Jersey, from Michigan to Texas, and from Georgia to California. Drivers range in age from 18 to 70. Youngsters like Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Timmy Hill would have had a much harder time getting into the rides they have without Jeff Gordon leading the way. In fact, after Gordon's initial success, teams and sponsors alike were always on the lookout for the next young sensation.

Why am I so interested in Jeff Gordon? It began with the first entire race I ever watched. It was 1998, NASCAR's 50th anniversary season, and Dale Earnhardt had just won his only Daytona 500. The rest of that season, though, belonged to "Wonder Boy," as Earnhardt dubbed the fresh-faced Gordon, who won at the Rock that day and on 12 other occasions that season. Gordon dominated the competition, tying a modern-era record with 13 wins and winning my loyalty as a fan.

Crew chief Ray Evernham also revolutionized pit crew performance by treating his team like athletes, putting them through drills and workouts, reducing the standard 17-18 second pit stop to 14-15 seconds. That magic 1998 season, Evernham led the Rainbow Warriors, as the No. 24 Dupont Refinishes team called themselves, in putting on a clinic in sports psychology. Their "Refuse to Lose" mantra certainly seemed to have the desired effect. In the 1998 season Gordon sat on the pole seven times and won from it four. Of the season's 33 races, Gordon landed in the top ten 28 times, with an astounding 26 of those finishes in the top five.

Think about that for a minute. 

Photo Courtesy Getty Images
The 1998 Winston Open Chromalusion car
For NASCAR's Golden Anniversary, the Golden Boy (yes, another of Gordon's nicknames) finished in the top five 78.78 percent of the time, and in the top ten 84.84 percent of the time. In the nine races from Sonoma in June to the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, Gordon won seven times. His average finish for the season was 5.7. He won the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500, the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, the Coke 600 and both road course races.

Of course he won the championship.

Mark Martin's seven wins would have clinched the Cup for him any other year, but not 1998. That season Jeff Gordon dispatched opponents with deceptive ease and set the good ol' boys of stock car racing on their collective ears to the point accusations of cheating were hurled at the Gordon/Evernham duo. Even Jack Roush became so frustrated at losing to the No. 24 that he accused the team of using illegal tires.

As special as that 1998 season was, it was only one of many seasons Jeff Gordon demonstrated his amazing skills in a stock car. His body of work is nothing less than astonishing. Yet until the last few years, he drew boos at driver introductions and snorts of derision from hardcore NASCAR fans. Long before Kyle Busch took his first bow to a chorus of booing fans, Jeff Gordon showed class in handling the negativity, even when pelted by cans from the stands as he was during his controversial 2007 Talladega win.

Can he win another championship? Will Jeff Gordon ever have as many driver championships as he does owner championships? It's entirely possible. He showed that competitive fire last season, and with any luck, he can be back in Victory Lane this season.

But even if he doesn't, if he walked away from stock cars today, Jeff Gordon would still be a legend, and would still have changed the face of NASCAR forever. 

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Jeff Gordon changed the face of NASCAR Jeff Gordon changed the face of NASCAR Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Friday, March 09, 2012 Rating: 5