Jeff Gordon has been around racing so long that his regrettable mullet and skimpy mustache of the early 1990s are long gone, replaced with a bit of distinguished gray at his temples.
At 43, Gordon is part of the sport’s old guard. And so when Gordon announced Thursday that the 2015 season would be his last as a driver at NASCAR’s highest level, the news was greeted with sadness and nostalgia, because nearly everyone likes Jeff now.
It wasn’t always that way. Gordon helped drag NASCAR from the South into the mainstream over the past 20 years, and sometimes the sport went there only after kicking and screaming. A Californian by way of Indiana and so telegenic that he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 2003, Gordon was a game-changer both on and off the track.
“I’ll be happy if people recognize me as a great race-car driver,” Gordon said during a teleconference Thursday, “because that’s all I ever wanted to be.”
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He was – and still is – a great driver. Gordon made NASCAR’s playoffs in 2014 and won four races. But he hasn’t won a Cup championship since 2001. The main reason why lives across the street from the Gordon family in south Charlotte. Jimmie Johnson is Gordon’s neighbor, teammate, friend and a six-time champion.
Still, Gordon is plenty good enough that he got to make this decision to take a year-long victory lap on his own terms. He doesn’t want a party and a rocking chair at every race track, because he really believes he might be able to pull off a championship or at least a couple of wins in his final season.
Gordon also was hesitant to use the word “retirement” Thursday, because he has a lifetime contract to work for Hendrick Motorsports and undoubtedly will be employed there in some non-driving capacity starting in 2016.
“Retirement means you go off to a beach somewhere and sit in a rocking chair on the front porch and drink your coffee and pet your dog,” Gordon said Thursday. “That’s not me. I plan on working. I’m going to be working. I’m actually going to have to get a real job.”
Said Rick Hendrick, Gordon’s employer and mentor for more than 20 years: “I’m anxious to see the next chapter – after we win the championship this year.”
Like Tiger Woods in golf or LeBron James in basketball, Gordon raised every boat in NASCAR’s water. Everyone in the sport made more money because of his starry success, which in turn brought in more TV contracts, fans and sponsorships.
Gordon helped change the image of stock-car racing as a regional diversion ruled by Southern good ol’ boys into a national sport that could host races all over America and still pull in large crowds.
He also wasn’t from around here, he was handsome, and he was almost too good. Gordon also was far more in touch with his emotional side than many of the grizzled veterans he competed alongside. When he won his first big race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, at age 22 in 1994, he cried for the final 10 laps.
Said Gordon in Victory Lane: “This is the highest feeling in the world. If I only win one Winston Cup race in my career, I’d be happy.” Gordon eventually would win 91 more, third-best all-time behind Richard Petty and David Pearson.
The best of the good ol’ boys during the 1990s – the late Dale Earnhardt, who might well have been the most talented NASCAR driver ever – gave Gordon the derisive nickname “Wonder Boy” shortly after he started winning big in his No. 24 Chevy. Although Earnhardt and Gordon would become close, the racing establishment sometimes resented Gordon. And during those early years he certainly could seem like a Ken doll come to life with his perfect answers, beauty-queen wife and firm handshakes at every meet-and-greet.
There turned out to be much more to Gordon than that, however. He has been a tireless advocate for his charitable foundation, which is dedicated to finding a cure for pediatric cancer. He went through an expensive divorce – the stumble seemed to make him more human in the eyes of many fans. He remarried and is a doting father to his and his wife Ingrid Vandebosch’s two children. The family keeps Legos inside Gordon’s hauler at the race track so he can build things with the kids during rain delays.
Gordon always has been one of the most smartest and most thoughtful people in racing. So if he thinks it’s time for him to go, it’s time. He has had some injury problems over the past few years – mostly chronic back pain – and he struggles like all parents in trying to find enough time in a day.
As Gordon told me last year: “My daughter lights up when I walk in a room. When I leave she says, ‘Where are you going? Don’t leave!’ A lot of times I wish I didn’t have to run off.”
Gordon, who had known he was going to make 2015 his swan song since last summer, cried when he gave his 7-year-old daughter Ella the news Thursday.
“She saw me get very emotional when I was telling her,” Gordon said. “And I saw a look that I’d never seen in her eye before. She had never seen me like that, and I had to explain to her. Because most kids see when tears are flowing, it’s sadness. And it wasn’t for me. It was pride.”
He should be proud. Gordon changed his profession for the better, and not many people can say that. The Wonder Boy grew up, but his legacy is no less wondrous for it.