Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's transformer

Entering his last 500, Jeff Gordon's legacy is that he transformed NASCAR.
Published February 20 2015
Updated February 22 2015

Jeff Gordon doesn't want the Derek Jeter treatment as he enters his final full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup season. • Gordon doesn't want rocking chair gifts or mass goodbyes. He doesn't need them. • The biggest tribute to the legacy of the four-time champion will be on the starting grid for today's season-opening Daytona 500, where most of the other 42 drivers owe at least part of their careers to the road Gordon paved more than two decades ago. • "When you think about pre-Jeff Gordon and what we have now," said 2010 Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray, "he was kind of a trendsetter and a guy that changed the direction of our sport."

To see where Gordon has taken NASCAR, you have to go back to his Cup debut, at the 1992 Hooters 500 in Atlanta.

Gordon's first run in the rainbow-colored No. 24 Chevy coincided with the final race of Richard Petty's legendary career. Most of the other 39 drivers in the field were like Petty — grizzled veterans who shared the sport's Southern heritage.

Gordon? He was a 21-year-old hotshot from California.

"You just didn't see that when he came in," said 19-year-old Chase Elliott, who will inherit Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports ride next season.

The fact that Elliott — who wasn't even born when Gordon started his career — will take over one of the sport's top rides is a testament to Gordon's impact.

In his Cup debut, Gordon was the only driver under 28. By the time he became the youngest Cup champion in NASCAR's modern era in 1995, teams were ready to broaden their search for drivers.

Today, the 43-car field will feature nine drivers under 28.

"I think it opened up a lot of people's eyes to youth, to say who is the next Jeff Gordon?" said Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion. "We've watched younger talent be able to come to the sport because of Jeff."

Today's field is also more geographically diverse thanks to Gordon. Only 12 drivers are Southerners, but as many racers hail from California (eight) as come from North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee — combined.

That's a drastic change from Gordon's first race, when 23 of the 41 drivers were from the South and only one other competitor was from California.

"When I came in, I always felt like I was the outsider," Gordon said. "That I wasn't accepted, and that I had to do things my way, but also to try to earn that respect."

Gordon did, eventually, thanks in large part to one of his fiercest rivals.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. remembers his dad introducing him to Gordon and remarking how good the rookie was going to become — one of the Intimidator's few compliments about a competitor. Gordon didn't find out until years later what winning the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s respect meant to NASCAR's fans.

"It takes years and years and years for that to kind of come full circle," Gordon said.

The sport is still reaping the benefits of the Gordon-Earnhardt rivalry.

Earnhardt was 20 years older and represented the sport's North Carolina roots. But Gordon's good looks and charm helped NASCAR grow into a mainstream sport with billion-dollar TV deals. Fellow open-wheel stars like Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick followed Gordon (and the larger paydays) into NASCAR.

"We needed a clean-cut, well-spoken person to kind of carry the sport," six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. "Jeff was that guy."

Whether it was because of Gordon's personality or because his success peaked at the same time NASCAR did, many of today's top drivers set their sights on becoming the next Jeff Gordon. Denny Hamlin was a member of his fan club as a child. Kyle Busch said he tried to model his road to NASCAR after Gordon.

A 7-year-old go-cart racer in Connecticut went so far as to tell a reporter that he was going to be Gordon's worst nightmare.

"I don't think I am his worst nightmare by any means," said Joey Logano, now 24 and one of the final four competitors in last year's Chase for the Championship, "but it is so cool to race against him now."

Even as his career comes to a close, Gordon remains near the top of the sport. Earnhardt Jr. said Gordon could be competitive for another decade.

The 43-year-old will start today's race from the pole for the 78th time of his career. Four of his 92 wins came last season, when he was one spot away from advancing to the final round of the Chase.

That's why Gordon doesn't want a Jeter goodbye with events that could distract him from winning his first championship since 2001. He wants to exit like John Elway, who ended his career with a Super Bowl title.

"I want to go out on top," Gordon said.

However his career ends, the three-time Daytona 500 champion is in for an emotional day and season.

For years, Gordon didn't even feel like he belonged in NASCAR's garage. Now, as he prepares to leave, competitors and fans are hailing the one-time outsider as one of the sport's transformative icons.

"I had a lot of guys inside the garage that didn't accept me, some fans that didn't accept me in the sport in a lot of ways," Gordon said. "But luckily my team did, and they believed me. And then I went out and did the things that I did."

And those things changed NASCAR forever.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.