HE WAS 'WONDERBOY' ONCE, A COCKY YOUNG OUTSIDER BOOED BY NASCAR'S TRADITIONAL FANS. NOW, AT AGE 44, JEFF GORDON IS THE BELOVED ELDER STATESMAN OF A TRANSFORMED SPORT SEEKING TO CAP OFF A TRANSCENDENT CAREER
This is an article from the Nov. 23, 2015 issue
THEY STAYED TO CHEER. After the race was over, after all the wrecked cars were packed away in their haulers, after tempers cooled, after the sun went down at the track, they stayed to cheer in the dark. They stayed to cheer Jeff Gordon.
That's understating things. They stayed to go mental for Jeff Gordon, the man whose 2004 and '07 wins at Talladega had irked fans so much that they showered his car with beer cans. Now here he was at Martinsville Speedway, being showered with love.
Even he found it amazing. "I don't know what it feels like to be a rock star, but that's as close as it can get, I think," Gordon said after piloting his number 24 Chevrolet to victory in the crash-filled Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 on Nov. 1.
The 93rd win of Gordon's Sprint Cup career clinched his spot in Sunday's four-man shootout for the season title. Should Gordon finish ahead of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. at Homestead-Miami Speedway, stock car's iron man—already on a short list of the sport's best drivers ever and an even shorter list of its most important—will go out on top. Gordon, who will retire after the race, at age 44, will be NASCAR's champion for the fifth time, 14 years after his last title.
Should that happen, it will trigger a three-Goody's din at Homestead. "I think a lot of people that maybe aren't my fans are kind of looking at my career: the respect, just winding it down, what it means," Gordon said after Martinsville.
For years the subset of NASCAR fans classifying themselves as "people that maybe aren't Jeff Gordon fans" was huge. Gordon had his supporters, but few drivers elicited vitriol the way he did. Many was the race fan who, when asked for whom he or she rooted, offered some variation of, "The 3, and whoever wrecks the 24."
The 3 was, of course, the chariot of Dale Earnhardt, a black Chevrolet that oozed badassery. Gordon broke into stock car racing in the early 1990s, a time when rugged and often mustachioed men ruled the track. Seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty had an upper lip so well covered that Groucho Marx would have been envious. Dale Earnhardt's 'stache was so thick it could strain clam chowder.
Gordon, on the other hand, was a gangly kid with a mustache that was losing to his eyebrows in the battle for most dominant tonsorial feature on his face. He also wore something resembling a mullet, only it partied in the front as well as the back. He was trying to look the tough guy without much success, and making matters worse was his simultaneous eagerness to appear sophisticated. When Gordon met Ray Evernham, the crew chief with whom he would win three of his four NASCAR championships, they were carrying identical carbon-fiber briefcases. "Mine was chock-full of paperwork," says Evernham. "He had a pad so he could take notes. But he also had an open-wheel [racing] magazine, some peanuts and a Gameboy in there."
That magazine was just another indication that Gordon didn't fit the mold. Growing up in California, he started racing quarter midgets at age five. When he was 14, his stepfather, John Bickford, moved the family to Indiana so Jeff could more easily move up the open-wheel ladder. "John is a very forward-thinking man," says Andy Graves, who is now Toyota Racing's technical director. Graves found out just how forward thinking when he was 19. He helped the 18-year-old Gordon with a setup in a sprint car race in Sandusky, Ohio, and Gordon lapped the field. In Victory Lane, Bickford asked Graves to move to Indiana to live and work with the family.
So when Gordon made the switch to stock cars, he was viewed—wrongly—as having been the product of a deep-pocketed organization. Earnhardt didn't help things when, in 1995, he began calling Gordon, who was on his way to his first title, Wonderboy. It was a case of Earnhardt, an inveterate buster of chops, doing what he did best: stirring things up. But his substantial fan base took it as something more serious, a declaration of hostilities.
After the '93 season ended, Gordon revealed that he had been dating Brooke Sealey. Because of her job as Miss Winston—one of the models in the employ of NASCAR's top sponsor, whose duties included handing out trophies in Victory Lane—they had to keep the relationship on the down low. When they made it public after the season, Earnhardt quipped, "Some of us were beginning to wonder if you liked girls." That gave ammo to the Fans Against Gordon army, a not-so-enlightened gang that delighted in bearing signs and stickers with Gordon's picture and the group's acronym.
The irony is that Earnhardt actually liked and mentored Gordon. Earnhardt's gibes, befitting a man who named his boat Sunday Money, were delivered with one eye on the bottom line. Rivalries sold. "He respected young talent and saw it benefitting the sport, which would benefit him," says Gordon. "And not just the sport but his business. And the business of licensed merchandising, which ended up benefitting both of us."
Gordon was in a no-win situation. Push back, and he's picking a fight he can only lose. Sit there and take it, and he's stuck being Wonderboy. So he became Wonderboy. "Jeff Gordon is a pretty smart guy," says Evernham. "The best thing he could do at that time was be respectful and understand that he's the new guy. You couldn't get away with the same things with Jeff Gordon today."
THE LAST guy to try get away with something with Jeff Gordon was Brad Keselowski. At Texas last November, Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, sideswiped Gordon on a restart. Gordon went after him on pit road, triggering a brawl between their teams. Afterward, Gordon appeared on live TV with his lip scraped and said of Keselowski, "He's just a dips---. You know, I mean, the way he races, I don't know how he's ever won a championship."
It was quite an outburst for a guy who was long disparaged for being too vanilla in front of a camera. "Early on in my career I focused on trying to say the right things, making sure my sponsors and fans were pleased and my team owner was not upset with me," Gordon says. "I never wanted to rock the apple cart. As you gain more knowledge and experience and comfort and maturity, you let go of some of that and let your personality come out."
The emergence of that personality took some time. Gordon was given a series of opportunities that were nontraditional for a stock car driver. Petty had been a guest on Hee Haw. Gordon hosted Saturday Night Live in 2003, shortly after NBC acquired NASCAR broadcast rights. When discussing his crossover gigs, Gordon can sound oddly dispassionate, like a man with an eye on the bottom line. Asked about SNL, he says, "When an opportunity comes your way, you have to look at [it] and make a decision on how to pursue it and try to make something out of it."
In fact, he turned down Saturday Night Live once before agreeing to host. "When I think about [doing things like SNL] beforehand," he says, "I get very nervous and sweat a lot and stress about it. But when it's happening, I embrace it and try to make it fun."
He ended up killing in a sketch with Chris Parnell in which Gordon played a redneck named Ricky Funk, whose mullet and mustache bore a striking resemblance to Gordon's a decade earlier. "He brought as much to that as most actors would," says Parnell.
Gordon became a regular fill-in for Regis Philbin on Live with Regis and Kelly. Again, he was a natural. He could talk about anything from racing to politics to the Cannes film festival. "He's a guy's guy, but he's also a guy who's in tune with women," says Kelly Ripa. "He's a genuine guy. He's not a phony-baloney."
AS GORDON was emerging from his shell in his public life, he was also undergoing a change in his personal life. He had married Sealey in 1994. They split in 2003. Not long before that, Gordon had become a car owner, teaming with his car owner, Rick Hendrick, to field a ride for 26-year-old Californian Jimmie Johnson. "I saw an opportunity not only to help someone get their opportunity," Gordon says, "but to be a part of it—and be part of it from the business side."
Gordon had long believed that friendships and racing don't mix. But that changed with Johnson, who like Gordon was young, good-looking and single. "I didn't anticipate us becoming friends, and had I not gone through the divorce, I don't know if we would have been as close friends as we were," Gordon says. "But the timing of everything—we hit it off."
Their fast friendship caught Johnson by surprise too. "The guy I met in a few meetings, the stories in the shop about how to approach him, how to handle him, the dos and do nots—they were so different from when I went to my first test session [at Las Vegas Motor Speedway] with him," Johnson says. "We went to Vegas three days early, and on the flight out I quickly realized we weren't going to go sightseeing."
"Jimmie came in right during the transformation," Gordon says with a laugh. "[When] I was 25 years old and was having tremendous success in one of the most popular sports in America, making tremendous money, I was living like I was 55 years old. I was a homebody. I was holding Bible studies and having family dinners. I missed out on a lot of my childhood because of racing, and I felt like I was also missing some of the best times of my life in my late 20s and early 30s. So when things didn't work out with that marriage, I was gonna make up for lost time."
Another marked change was that Gordon stopped bringing religion into interviews. "I wasn't brought up [with religion]," he says. "It was something I got introduced to when I came into the Cup Series. I explored it and learned a lot from that experience. I feel like it's helped make me a better person, but I choose to do it more privately now."
The good times coincided with good racing. Johnson won his first race in his 13th start, at California Speedway in 2002. He and Gordon were supposed to fly home, but in Victory Lane, Gordon notified him of a change in plans: Road trip! Anyone who was up for it would report to Gordon's rented motor home for a night out in L.A.
The two men had plenty in common besides driving. Each had a pied-à-terre in New York City. Their girlfriends, New York--based models Ingrid Vandebosch (Gordon's) and Chandra Janway (Johnson's), were pals. The drivers even shared an affinity for break dancing. "At parties or events, if I had a couple drinks, I became the party favor," says Gordon. "In a private setting I loosen up enough to somehow break out one of my break dancing moves, and once one of your friends sees that, you're the break dancer."
So it was that Gordon was showing off his moves the night before Johnson's 2004 wedding to Janway. "He was doing the nickel," says Johnson, "and the edge of a table got him across his nose."
"Chandra was not happy," says Gordon. "We did our best to cover it up [for the pictures]."
His friendship with Johnson loosened Gordon up, but eventually it hardened him as well. Those old fears about mixing business and pleasure weren't unfounded after all. "Up until 2007, I was pretty O.K. with [competing against Johnson], and then in '07 we had them on the ropes and he came back and smoked us," says Gordon, who had the points lead with three races to go. "We started to be more competitors than teammates."
Dustups on the track soon followed. Bumping at Texas in 2010 led Gordon to tell his team over the radio, "Four-time is a little upset," in a singsong voice. (Johnson would win his fifth title—in a row—that year and add a sixth in '13.) They tangled again the next week, at Talladega, leading Gordon to announce, "It takes a lot to make me mad, and I am pissed now."
A truce was brokered by Hendrick, and things have improved. "We're in a really good place right now," says Gordon. "Married, two children, married, two children—you start looking at life a little bit different. [Gordon married Vandebosch in 2006.] You start going, You know what, no matter what, I'll always love this guy. He's a great person, he's a great race car driver. We each have our place, and we're each comfortable with where we fit in, in the racing world and in the world in general."
NO MATTER what Gordon does on Sunday, he won't be able to catch Johnson in career titles. But he will have the third-most victories and the longest streak of consecutive starts in NASCAR history. Gordon has an undeniable gift for hot-shoeing a car. Hendrick noticed it the first time he saw Gordon on a track, in 1992, at Atlanta in what was then the Busch Grand National series. Every time the Baby Ruth car came out of the corner, Hendrick noticed, it had haze coming off the tires: the telltale sign of a loose car. "If you get away with it one time, you're O.K.," Hendrick says. "If you get away with it two or three times in a row, then you're damn good."
"When guys don't have that level of talent, they're going around the corner spending 50% or 60% of their focus just trying not to crash," says Evernham. "[Gordon] can spend 100% of his focus on how to make the car better." And when it comes to giving feedback to a crew chief, Gordon might be the best ever.
"You can see his intelligence in the car," says Johnson. "He feels what's going on, and he's been able to verbalize that to Ray and to [his subsequent crew chiefs]. That's where the magic really lies."
Gordon's first Cup race was in Atlanta, on the final day of the 1992 season. The race is memorable for having been Petty's last and for having had six drivers who were mathematically eligible for the title at the start. Sunday's event in Homestead will feature four contenders, thanks to the new rules of the Chase, a contrivance introduced in 2004 to guarantee a tight points race.
Under the old system, which gave equal weight to all races, Gordon would have won titles in 2004, '07 and '14, meaning he would have seven. (To be fair, under the old points he'd be out of contention this year.) There would have been justice in Gordon's going out with seven, the same number won by Petty and Earnhardt—the two drivers who did more than anyone else, save Gordon, to grow their sport. Gordon also changed perceptions within NASCAR, which is now rife with Californians and former open-wheelers.
Now he will join Fox's broadcast team, where he is certain to be insightful and witty. That means he's starting his fifth decade of spending an inordinate amount of his time at race tracks. "I've apologized a number of times for stealing his childhood from him," Bickford says earnestly. "There's no need to race as much as we raced." But Gordon wouldn't change it for anything. Racing is why he's adored by millions, including many who once booed him. It's why in his final season he has been showered with gifts, such as the custom blackjack table from Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the ponies that Texas Speedway president Eddie Gossage gave him for his kids, eight-year-old Ella and five-year-old Leo. Racing is why he could open the Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital, or give his car to a fan who lost her 2003 Jeff Gordon Monte Carlo in a fire. It's why he can introduce Ella to Taylor Swift. It's why the only thing vanilla about him now is the nose on the Napa Valley Merlot produced by Jeff Gordon Cellars. It's why, when he drives from his home in Charlotte to Martinsville, he takes the Jeff Gordon Expressway, a stretch of I-85 just before the Dale Earnhardt Boulevard exit.
Ask him about his legacy, though, and he demurs. "I don't feel like it's for me to decide," he says. But then he continues: "I put everything I can into my driving and into the team and into life, and I'm proud of that. That's my personal legacy, knowing how much I've put into it and how it's paid off."