CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jeff Gordon graduated from racing sprint cars on “Thursday Night Thunder” to the big leagues of NASCAR, arriving with a silly mustache, a mullet and a briefcase that held little more than his Nintendo Game Boy.
The 20-year-old from Vallejo, who briefly relocated to Indiana for its lowered age requirements to race, was very much an outsider in a series with deep Southern roots. The fragile state of open-wheel racing had thrown a roadblock into Gordon’s career path and he’d detoured to stock cars as the best option.
The “Wonder Boy” almost immediately took NASCAR mainstream. Gordon is largely credited for pushing the sport beyond a regional series to one with an international presence.
Gordon won four championships, his 93 victories rank third all-time and his savvy brand management made him one of the most recognized drivers in the world. He changed the way NASCAR was marketed, brought in Fortune 500 companies as sponsors and became the first driver to appeal to a broader sports audience as a pop-culture reference and an entertainer.
On Friday night, Gordon will be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame (5 p.m. NBCSN). He was a first-ballot selection but fell shy of the first unanimous pick in the 10-year history of the Hall at 96 percent. He will be inducted with NASCAR team owners Roger Penske and Jack Roush. Also inducted will be Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, drivers killed in aviation accidents two months apart at the prime of their careers.
Photo: Rob Carr / Associted Press 2007
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Gordon was the face of NASCAR from his 1993 rookie season until his 2015 retirement.
He made NASCAR attractive and viable to an entire generation of current drivers. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson got his break from Gordon, and reigning champion Joey Logano grew up a Gordon fan. Current NASCAR driver Kyle Larson has photos meeting his childhood hero. Without Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports maybe isn’t one of the most successful teams in all of sports.
“IndyCar was always on my radar growing up on the West Coast, but then here’s this guy with a really bad mustache making his way in stock-car racing,” Johnson recalled. “My dad is a huge sprint-car-midget fan and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Jeff Gordon, right?’ … The doors that he opened for drivers that did not grow up in the South, that grew up racing in the dirt, he really changed that whole outlook for owners. A lot of opportunities came through those doors that he opened.”
Gordon’s first victory came in his second season, his first championship a year after that. He won 10 races the next season but lost the championship to his teammate, and Gordon recovered to reel off 23 victories in claiming the 1997 and 1998 titles.
“He was just the whole package. Jeff could do anything he wanted. He had that kind of talent,” said Hall of Fame team owner Rick Hendrick, who will induct Gordon.
Gordon is now a NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports, involved in numerous other ventures and the father of two children who’ve traveled the world with him and wife Ingrid Vandebosch. He’s also a key member of Hendrick’s executive team and the listed owner of Johnson’s car. Should Hendrick ever need to hand over the company, it’s likely Gordon could take the helm.
“He loves this place and he wants to see it go on,” Hendrick said.
Jenna Fryer is an Associated Press writer.
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