CHARLOTTE — Of the hundreds of trophies Jeff Gordon won over a three-decade career in racing that started at age 5, he displays just a handful in his home here, elegantly lit on shelves in the family’s entertainment room. From time to time, he’ll rotate a few. But seven are never swapped out, anchors of a brilliant career, marking his four NASCAR Cup championships and three Daytona 500 victories.
Only now, at 47, does he fully appreciates the latter, understanding from the perspective of a slower-paced life just how difficult it is to win NASCAR’s biggest race. How many great drivers never did. How many variables are beyond a driver’s control over four hours and 800 left turns around Daytona International Speedway: blown tires, collisions with seagulls (it has happened) and the inevitable multicar crashes triggered by one rash move.
“Every year that I’m away from it, I appreciate the significance more,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “When you’re in it, you’re so focused on the competition and starting the season off right, I don’t think you can sit back and truly absorb how big that is — as an event, as a competition or just as a person.”
Gordon is one of just five stock-car racers who have won Daytona three or more times, putting him in the elite company of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Dale Jarrett. And he did so at the height of his dominance (in 1997, 1999 and 2005), which dovetailed with and, in many ways, was the driving force behind NASCAR’s peak popularity.
With his Hollywood looks and corporate polish, Gordon took the southern-rooted sport nationwide and was hated for it by legions of NASCAR’s old-line fans. He wasn’t just an outsider; he was a Californian, with no discernible accent, suspiciously good diction and a boyish charm that made female fans swoon.
For all this, he was booed mercilessly during pre-race introductions, but Gordon just smiled and waved. He was a sponsor’s dream and NASCAR’s first crossover star, as comfortable hosting “Saturday Night Live” or appearing on “Regis and Kelly” as he was in Victory Lane.
“Jeff Gordon got us into a lot of places that my personality or my upbringing [as a southerner] didn’t get us in,” said Petty, 81, a seven-time NASCAR champion. “And he did a heck of a job doing it. He was able to expand NASCAR into areas that Richard Petty didn’t — and expand it to a younger crowd.”
None of this would have been possible without hellacious racing ability. Gordon won 93 NASCAR races in a 23-year span — on superspeedways, twisting road courses and bruising short tracks. The kid was ruthless behind the wheel, with blue eyes that blazed with the competitive fire of Secretariat, as former NASCAR driver Ricky Craven puts it. And his rise signaled the end of the dominance of the late Dale Earnhardt.
For the time that they battled, Gordon and Earnhardt staged one thrill show after another — particularly at Daytona, where the youngster learned the art of aerodynamic drafting by following the tire-treads of the master.
When NASCAR opens its 2019 season with Sunday’s 61st running of the Daytona 500, Gordon will be in the Fox broadcast booth, as he has since 2016. The grandstands won’t be nearly as full as they were at stock-car racing’s peak, when 180,000 flocked to Daytona Beach for the Great American Race. And the 40-car field will lack the big names who carried the sport after Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the 2001 race, stars such as Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who followed Gordon into retirement.
For the most part, Gordon doesn’t miss racing. He has found, in broadcasting, a new camaraderie with Fox teammates Darrell Waltrip and Mike Joy and the producers who serve as his “on-air” crew chief. He has learned when to interject during broadcasts and what sort of insight has the most value. Once drivers flip the ignition and the deep-throated roar of engines fires up, Gordon is a fan with a microphone, totally stoked about cars’ handling and crisp pit stops.
It’s only when a race has a truly wild finish, in which exceptionally skilled drivers risk all for the trophy, as Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. did on the last lap of the 2016 Daytona 500, that Gordon wishes he were in the high-speed thick of it again.
“It’s hard to explain just how crazy that feels in the final corner — three-wide, cars sliding,” Gordon said. “Those are the moments when you go: ‘Oh, yeah! I’d like to be in there! I’d like to be experiencing that! That’s cool!’ ”
Twenty years ago this week, Gordon gave fans that thrill, pulling off one of the greatest passes of his career to win his second Daytona 500.
Running three-wide with 11 laps to go, with Rusty Wallace sandwiched in the middle and Mike Skinner on the high side, Gordon ducked low, dipping off the track and onto the asphalt apron in a gutsy move for the lead. He hadn’t anticipated the lapped car of Ricky Rudd exiting pit road, dead ahead. And for a split second, he wasn’t sure he could clear. But Wallace edged high, and he squeezed through.
Today, Gordon has total recall of the sequence. Bravery and instinct had nothing to do with it. The pass was a clinical, calculated move based on all he knew about his car’s capability, aerodynamics and the precise spot that gave him the best chance of pulling off a move he’d been practicing for years.
For starters, Gordon explains, what happens in a split-second on the track unfolds in slow motion in the mind of racer. If you drive 200 mph long enough, Gordon explains, it feels like 80 mph on the interstate.
“You get used to the speed,” he said, “so 200 miles per hour feels normal.”
What’s not normal is the way the air behaves at that speed, in heavy traffic. An air bubble builds up behind each car, so to pass, a trailing car must play with the spacing — dropping back, then surging forward to build momentum, like a child rocking back and forth on a swing to go higher. Then you have to attack at the right moment. On Daytona’s straightaways, drivers spend as much time looking in their rearview mirror as ahead, to block attempts at a pass. But on the front-stretch trioval, their eyes are fixed ahead to negotiate the subtle turns. That’s when they’re vulnerable. That’s when Gordon sped underneath Wallace.
Still, once clear, he needed an aerodynamic push to stay out front. He got it from Earnhardt, who chose to push him rather than Wallace, a longtime friend, or Skinner, his teammate.
“That’s what won me the race,” Gordon said.
Still, Earnhardt hardly conceded. He battled Gordon with everything he had to snatch the lead away, but couldn’t. And on Gordon’s victory lap, Earnhardt pulled his black No. 3 Chevy alongside, gave Gordon’s car a shove in its side, then smiled and waved.
“I think he was showing me how much fun he was having,” Gordon said.
Gordon is among the fortunate to have left racing on his own terms. The chronic lower back pain that dogged the late stage of his career has subsided, flaring up only if he makes moves that trigger the damage of decades of torquing to stave off G-forces.
“If I go and pick up a heavy piece of luggage and turn like this [twisting to his left], I’ll be on my knees,” he says.
He speaks in his office at Jeff Gordon Inc., on the second floor of one of Hendrick Motorsports’ immaculate race shops, where the Nos. 5, 24, 48, 88 Chevrolets are in various stages of being built and rebuilt. Favorite helmets are arrayed on the bookcase behind his desk, along with family photos. A model of the car with which he won the 2017 Rolex 24-hour race at Daytona sits on his desk, a major point of pride and the favorite of his children, Ella and Leo, for its exotic, stealthy, coal-black looks.
“My kids were like: ‘Ooh! You’re driving the Batmobile!’ ” he laughed.
From his new vantage point as broadcaster and part-owner of the Hendrick Motorsports empire, Gordon has rare perspective on what NASCAR needs to rebuild its audience. He believes the racing is as dynamic as ever. What fans crave, he says, are personalities.
“People want relatability,” Gordon said. “They want to see personalities they want to emulate, or somebody they can appreciate, somebody they aspire to be or somebody who just makes them smile or laugh.”
Ferreting out those personalities is part of Gordon’s job in the booth.
Rick Hendrick, the 69-year-old car owner for whom Gordon raced his entire career in NASCAR’s top ranks, was on hand last month to see Gordon inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Escorted to the stage by his children, Gordon attributed much of his success to lucky timing and the faith of every car owner who gave him a chance along the way.
He also thanked the sport’s fans and was showered with cheers — a measure of the respect he earned over his career, converting legions of haters to admirers.
Looking on, Hendrick reflected on the first time he saw Gordon drive, convinced that the teenager flying around Atlanta Motor Speedway was about to wreck, his car so close to out of control. When he didn’t, Hendrick knew he had found the sport’s next great driver and signed him up.
“I thought, ‘Man, how time flies,’ ” Hendrick said, recounting his emotions during the ceremony. “But Jeff started a revolution. Beyond his talent, he did more to put NASCAR where it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was on a rocket rise, than anyone.”
Hendrick made more news than he intended recently when he acknowledged that he’d like Gordon to take over Hendrick Motorsports one day. It has been his private vision for some time, which is fitting on many levels.
Gordon understands drivers, for starters. Hendrick marveled anew just last week, listening to Gordon debrief his young drivers William Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott as they flew back to Charlotte on the team plane after the Hendrick sweep in qualifying at Daytona. (Byron and Bowman led the qualifying and will start 1-2 for Sunday’s race.)
“Jeff was telling the guys about things he could see, things they needed to look at: about braking and throttle; how the side-draft works in a certain place in the corner; when you can pin a guy down and make your move,” Hendrick said. “And they listen to every word.”
Gordon also understands what crew chiefs need to succeed. And he sits in on meetings of every department at the shop, as time permits, to broaden his grasp of the operation.
Above all, Gordon is like a son or baby brother to Hendrick, who lost both — his son, Ricky, and brother, John, along with eight other family and crew members — in a 2004 plane crash en route to Martinsville, Va. They are memorialized by a fountain on the grounds of Hendrick Motorsports, not far from Gordon’s office, with a plaque for each name.
Hendrick isn’t quite ready to retire from his automotive business, which has 11,000 employees across 104 dealerships, or the racing empire that employs another 600. And Gordon isn’t ready to give up his broadcasting career, which Fox extended via a multiyear contract in January.
But the day will come when Hendrick Motorsports is Gordon’s operation.
Until then, Gordon splits time between the race shop and the broadcast booth, drilling deeper in both, looking for that perfect opening where he can bring all he knows about the sport he loves.