I was watching when a young phenom named Jeff Gordon entered the NASCAR Winston Cup scene. Young, different, polished and mustached, he was far from the good ol’ boys I was introduced to in my first years of watching Cup.
Gordon was, and looked like, a child but he knew how to wrangle a car. His debut came in 1992 in Atlanta, the very last race of the season and the final curtain call for the sport’s most visible star, Richard Petty.
For Gordon, ascension in the sport soon followed. Words like “dominant,” “unbelievable,” “talented” and “upstart” were bandied about constantly.
Gordon won races, collected championships. Then came gossip about, first, a forbidden romance, then a wedding and later a broken marriage.
When the successful duo of crew chief Ray Evernham and driver Gordon parted after three championships there was talk of the end of a short-lived but stellar era.
But Gordon won again. He won races then another championship with crew chief Robbie Loomis. Gordon now had earned four titles.
Being a Dale Earnhardt fan I never, in good conscience, called myself a Gordon fan. But, I did like him. I couldn’t help myself. Not only did the man have enormous talent and parlay that into wins and championships, he was, for what it’s worth, my peer. Gordon is only one year older.
At a time when most of the drivers had a decade or more (a lot more in some cases) on me, it was exciting to see someone with whom I could identify win on the track.
This was a time long before drivers may have started their Cup careers in their late twenties or older – like Joey Logano. This was a time when Harry Gant wowed and thrilled race fans with his can’t-lose string in his fifties, earning the name “Mr. September.” Youth was missing and certainly wasn’t dominating.
But I couldn’t help but be dazzled by Gordon. As the Crown Royal Presents The Curtiss Shaver 400 At The Brickyard 400 Powered By BigMachineRecords.com runs this weekend – hold on, I’m tired from typing all of that – my thoughts do turn to the inaugural race run at Indianapolis back in 1994.
Gordon, as you recall, won the race and solidified his place in the annals of NASCAR’s storied history – at the tender age of 23.
A few years later my father presented my husband a collectible plaque with Gordon’s picture next to a stamp of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tying the two together. It was a gorgeous piece, but we were Earnhardt fans and found it to be a “dust collector” and sold it at a garage sale years later for a song.
I still kick myself about that. But hindsight is 20/20. At the time I was adamant about Earnhardt as my one and only driver. It was much later in my NASCAR fandom that I grew accepting and respectful of all the drivers in the field.
With four victories to date at Indy, Gordon still holds the record for most wins at the Brickyard 400.
Gordon is sure to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. His accomplishments have made me soar. In addition I’ve been pleased for him personally as I watched him fall in love, get married, and create a lovely family.
It’s been difficult to watch him struggle this season. His chances for making the Chase are shrinking. It concerns me that he may not make it or even win a race this year.
Gordon isn’t finished; at least I hope he’s not. There are legions of Gordon fans still waiting to witness the “Drive for Five” so they can celebrate a fifth championship with Gordon. I’ll cheer with all of the rest.
In the meantime, I’ll be cheering loudly for Gordon to revisit victory lane at Indy.