Jeff Gordon. These days, it’s a name that stands on its own. Jimmie Johnson might have more championships, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. might be more popular, but when all is said and done, neither of those men, legends though they may become, will be the very definition of the era they drove in. Johnson comes close, but at the end of the day, the man who became the face of the second half of NASCAR’s modern era is the one who taught Johnson how it was done.
There aren’t many drivers with more wins than Gordon, who spent the late 1990s winning everything and everywhere. Once he retires from full-time competition, after the checkered flag at Homestead this year Gordon’s numbers will cement his place among the sport’s elite. His 92 wins are good for third all-time, with only Richard Petty and David Pearson, arguably the two greatest drivers the sport has ever seen, tallying more. Of the three, only Gordon claims all his wins in the sport’s modern era, a time where cherry-picking races with less competition became virtually extinct. His 13 victories, captured in 33 races in 1998 is the highest one-season total since the mid-1970s.
Gordon was a terror in the late 1990s, and while many fans disliked, even loathed him for winning so much, so early, the impact he had on the sport was impossible to deny, even before his career was a decade old. No driver in the history of the sport reached 50 wins faster than Gordon, who eclipsed that mark in 2000, after just 232 starts. He was the driver the fans loved to hate, fueled in part by his boy-next-door demeanor and more so by his dominance, coming of age as Dale Earnhardt was aging. Gordon was the antithesis of Earnhardt – the young, clean-cut speed demon to Earnhardt’s old-school, blue-collar aggressor. They respected each other immensely, though their fans rarely shared that sentiment.
What Gordon has become since isn’t just about statistics or even rivalries. Yes, his win total marks him as the greatest driver in the last two decades, maybe in the modern era as a whole. The fact that he could win anywhere made him a threat every week, and while the championship road ended in 2001 (a year that began with Earnhardt as the heavy title favorite, only to see his legend come to an abrupt end with his death in a Daytona 500 crash) Gordon still remained a thorn in the side of the competition. Many speculate that, had the Chase not come into play, Gordon may have equaled Earnhardt and Petty with seven Cup titles.
Speculation aside, Gordon’s lofty stats make him a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’ll be missed for his on-track accomplishments as both a driver and a car owner (Rick Hendrick may foot the bills, but it was Gordon who, along with Hendrick’s son Ricky, saw something in a young driver that nobody else saw. As a car co-owner, Gordon became a six-time Cup champion with Jimmie Johnson.). But, to many, Gordon represents much more than numbers in a dusty volume of historical notes. He’s the last link to simpler days for NASCAR, days when there was no Chase, no eight-car alliances, before the words “aerodynamic dependence” were a part of some fans’ vocabulary.
Among the current slate of full-time drivers, climbing into their rides next month at Daytona only Gordon raced against two seven-time champions. Gordon’s first race was Richard Petty’s last, a small but significant overlap of two of the finest drivers NASCAR has produced its nearly 70-year history. But it was the rivalry that bloomed between Gordon and Earnhardt that fueled fans in the ’90s, one that will be a lasting legacy and an important building block in both men’s storied careers.
After the death of Davey Allison, Earnhardt’s heir apparent was unclear… that is, until Gordon came along. It took the young Californian a year to settle in a Cup car. He hit everything and then some in that rookie season of 1993… and he learned from it all, roaring to his first wins as a sophomore, a list that included the first Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Earnhardt nicknamed him “Wonder Boy” and Gordon responded by toasting Earnhardt’s 1994 title with a champagne flute full of milk. A year later, the roles were reversed; quickly, as the sport gained national attention, Gordon launched to the forefront, winning three titles from 1995-98 as Earnhardt slipped back. For the drivers, the rivalry was mostly friendly, built on respect. But for their fans, it was often a bitter bone of contention.
Every sport needs a great rivalry; for the legions of fans, ones who sat up and paid attention to NASCAR for the first time in that boom era, Earnhardt and Gordon were it. It was the blue-collar, tough-as-a-boot veteran versus the seemingly made-for-TV, sensitive-type “young gun.” The more Gordon won, the more he supplanted Earnhardt as the best of his day. Hatred, particularly among the Earnhardt fans kept growing, along with Earnhardt’s private respect.
It was, perhaps, appropriate that when Earnhardt died at the beginning of what many felt would be a resurgent 2001 season, Gordon was the one who won the title. At the time, it seemed impossible that the trophy would be his last, but NASCAR changed the game, and the one it became was never one Gordon could master. Like Earnhardt, Gordon raced with the single-minded goal of winning races. The rest generally fell into place, and if it didn’t, well, there was always next year. There was no other game to play, no system to figure out. The mentality that made Earnhardt and Gordon great was also the one that became Gordon’s Achilles’ heel in the Chase era. Gordon’s struggles highlighted everything Earnhardt would have hated about the sport’s playoff system.
NASCAR post-Earnhardt changed, but Gordon didn’t. At age 43, he races with the same hunger he had as Wonder Boy. His prodigy became his biggest rival, but it wasn’t the same as those halcyon summers when Gordon-Earnhardt was the rivalry. It was the last great one the sport has seen, perhaps the last it ever will see. There have been other, smaller faceoffs over the years, but they lacked the passion and intensity of that late ’90s battle royale.
When Gordon hangs up his helmet at the end of this season, the sport is losing more than the greatest driver of the last two decades. It loses the last strong link to the sport’s golden days, the last viable tie to the Earnhardt era. Others may have raced with Earnhardt (though they’re becoming scarce as well; among the full-timers, only Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Ron Hornaday, Jr. and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. raced with Earnhardt for a full season or more) but it was Gordon whose career is inextricably linked with the Intimidator.
The sport’s last great rivalry ended with Earnhardt’s death, but Gordon was still racing, still winning, still reminding fans of the days when so many first noticed the formerly regional sport. For a generation of fans, 2016 will be the first season they have ever seen without Jeff Gordon in that No. 24. Gordon’s departure marks the end of an era. It also severs the last tie with a simpler, golden time for NASCAR, one that fades a little further into the distance with each passing year.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.