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Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Updated: September 7, 10:57 AM ET
Gordon's greatness is enduring

By David Newton
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rick Hendrick was in the middle of a busy schedule at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 when he noticed this kid in the Nationwide Series race coming off of the corners with the back end of his car sliding almost out of control.

"I told the guy with me that I wanted to wait a minute and see him bust his tail," the owner of Hendrick Motorsports recently recalled. "I stood there for 20 laps, and he just kept on going. He was on the ragged edge all day."

Hendrick finally turned and asked who was driving.

"That Gordon kid," he was told.

That was Jeff Gordon.

That was the future of the sport.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon was trying hard to look grown up in 1992 when Rick Hendrick first noticed him.

Gordon didn't look any more polished out of the car than he did in it with his pencil-thin mustache and mullet. But Hendrick was impressed enough that he sent then-general manager Jimmy Johnson to sign him "no matter what it took."

The mustache and mullet that Gordon hoped would make him look older as a teenager are long one. Gordon is as GQ and suave as they get in a good ol' boy sport, with a Hollywood-type smile and Hollywood-type friends to go with it.

But the four-time Sprint Cup champion still is sliding cars around AMS as we saw on Tuesday when he was virtually out of control trying to hold off teammate Jimmie Johnson for career win No. 85 that moved him alone into third place on NASCAR's all-time win list behind Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105).

Gordon's still showing that aggressive nature that Hendrick knew would make him great.

"When I first met him in the flesh I sat there and stared at him like, 'You're too young and little to drive one of these cars,' " Hendrick said. "He had that little mustache. It blew me away how young he looked.

"I've actually got a video of him standing by a Sprint Car. I think he was 13 or 14 and he looked like he was 8. But signing him, that was the best decision I ever made."

A Natural

The 19-year-old kid walked into the garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway carrying a leather briefcase in which he had a Nintendo Game Boy, a cell phone and a racing magazine.

"It was pretty funny," Ray Evernham recalled of the first time he met the driver he would crew chief to three Cup titles.

There was nothing funny about what Evernham saw next. Within 15 laps of testing a stock car at the 1.5-mile track for the first time, Gordon was turning laps faster than defending Busch Series champion Chuck Bown, who shook the car down.

"It was just amazing, just amazing," Evernham said.

Others that were there that day agreed.

"Probably Darlington is the only track that is tougher than Charlotte," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the former president of CMS and a resident NASCAR historian. "What impressed me most was his smoothness of getting around the track.

"Most rookies jerk the car around. What he did that day, it was pretty incredible."

Most won't say they expected greatness out of Gordon that day. Most won't say they knew the California kid that grew up hoping to be an open-wheel star challenging A.J. Foyt and Al Unser in the Indianapolis 500 would one day stand alone in third on NASCAR's win list.

Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham
Ray Evernham says he knew Jeff Gordon would someday rank at least third in Sprint Cup wins.

Evernham does.

From the moment he saw Gordon wheel around CMS and heard the way he communicated with him on the radio way beyond his years, the future Hall of Fame crew chief knew there were no limits to what the future Hall of Fame driver could do.

"Quite honestly, and I'm not trying to sound cocky or like a know-it-all, but absolutely from the first time I met him I expected this," said Evernham, who helped Gordon collect 47 of his 85 wins. "Some of that was because of my experience at IROC. I had already worked with the greatest drivers in the world.

"I knew he was special."

Gordon still is special, as we all saw on Tuesday.

"I don't remember a lot about that day," Gordon said as he recalled the first Charlotte test. "I was nervous, I can tell you that. But when I got in the car, things just happened. You focus on the things that allow you to go faster.

"That's all I knew. That's what you do."

That's what made Gordon a cut above.

"From the first time we tested the feedback he gave, he wasn't intimidated by the car, he wasn't intimidated by the speed, he wasn't all giddy about having the chance to race in NASCAR," Evernham said. "It was like he had a job to do and he was going to do it the best he could.

"He's still that way."

The reasons Gordon was destined for greatness as a 19-year-old are the same that make him great today. He's smart, savvy and can drive the wheels off a stock car when given the right setup.

"I didn't know how far he would go," said his stepfather, John Bickford, who was responsible for developing Gordon into a great competitor from the first days he was riding bicycles and then go-karts. "I know one thing, watching him [in recent races], he hasn't given up.

"You can say he's 40, but he doesn't give up. When they get the car right, he's still as good as anybody out there."

Thunderous Beginning

Saturday night Thunder featuring USAC racing became a staple on ESPN for motorsports fans.

Jeff Gordon
A 13-year-old Jeff Gordon already knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.

It became Gordon's personal stage to showcase his talent.

It's where Evernham, Hendrick and many others first marveled at his talent. They still marvel at the way the then-scrawny, not-so-well-groomed kid knocked off win after win, legend after legend, in Midget, Silver Crown and Sprint Cars on tracks mostly in and around the Indianapolis area where he moved to hone his skills.

The exposure Gordon got from Saturday Night Thunder led to a meeting in 1990 with stock car team owner Hugh Connerty, who owned Hooters restaurants and was a partner with Outback Steakhouse.

Connerty had secured sponsorship through Outback and was looking for a driver to finish the last few Busch Grand National races. He hired Gordon and paired him with Evernham to make their stock car debut on Oct. 20 at Rockingham Speedway.

Gordon was fast from the get-go, qualifying the Pontiac on the outside of the front row. Unfortunately for him, he wrecked on Lap 33 and finished 39th.

But history wasn't far away.

Gordon spent the next two years driving Fords in the Nationwide Series for Bill Davis Racing. He won rookie of the year in 1991 and captured a NASCAR-record 11 poles in 1992.

Then came that infamous day at Atlanta, where Hendrick couldn't take his eyes off of the young star.

Hendrick can't imagine where HMS would be today without Gordon.

It's hard to imagine where NASCAR would be. Gordon opened doors in mainstream America, hosting "Saturday Night Live," co-hosting "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" that later became "Live with Regis and Kelly," appearing on "Wheel of Fortune" and being featured in "Fortune" magazine.

He set up a foundation that has become the model for other drivers.

"Things I've been introduced to because of racing has opened my eyes to things I never thought were possible," Gordon said. "I remember after winning the first championship being presented ideas of doing things a little different than traditionally had been done.

Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon
Team owner Rick Hendrick, left, struck paydirt with Jeff Gordon. Together they have helped make each other very wealthy men.

"That's sort of been instilled in me. It's always allowed me, when things open up, to push the envelope."

Gordon became such big news that the divorce from his first wife, Brooke, made national headlines -- another first for the sport.

"He never embarrassed himself or anybody and never says the wrong thing," Hendrick said. "I don't know if I can say enough about him. I'm just fortunate I was the one who had him.

"I really don't know where our company would be without him."

Or again, where the sport would be.

"Can he do what Muhammad Ali and [Michael] Jordan did and go beyond this sport?" Wheeler said early in Gordon's career. "He might, because he's the antithesis of what a racer should be. He's not a good ol' tobacco-chewing guy. But he needs what Ali and Arnold Palmer had -- great victories over tremendous competition."

Great Victories And Wow Moments

The Kid was coming off the final turn in qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The rear of the car was out-of-control sideways, leaving black marks on the track.

For most that would have killed the lap and put the car way back in the field. Gordon held on to win the pole.

"There's been a lot of things that wowed me, but that was one of the biggest," Hendrick said as he recalled the 1995 Brickyard 400. "You are at Indy for one of the first times and you see him coming off the corners sideways … "

Gordon's memory of that moment is different.

"What was interesting about that day was Richard Petty criticized me," he said. "He was, 'I don't know why he put himself at risk. He had the pole by a mile and almost blew it.'

"That's the thing I remember, Richard Petty saying I didn't need to do that."

Gordon didn't win the race that year, but he's won four times at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. When it comes to what Wheeler calls "great victories over great competition," few in the history of the sport have been better.

In addition to his Brickyard wins, Gordon has three victories in the Daytona 500, seven at the famed Darlington Raceway and three in the Coca-Cola 600.

"If it was a big race, you could feel that little extra intensity when Jeff walked into the garage," said Robbie Loomis, who was Gordon's crew chief when he won his fourth title in 2001. "The bigger the money or something was on the line, the more he could put into it."

When it comes to "wow" moments, the inaugural Brickyard 400 stands out for Gordon.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon's rookie year in 1993 was solid, with seven top-5s and a rookie of the year award.

"As a kid I dreamed of racing at Indianapolis," he said. "Winning that inaugural Brickyard 400, it changed my life. We didn't get to kiss the bricks then, but as I rode around the track after the race, it was like nobody left the place.

"Hearing that many people cheer and be almost as excited as I was, it was amazing. Back then we went to Disney World the next day. There were lots of interviews, lots of things that made that day stand out more than any more for me."

There are more "wow" moments in Gordon's career than one can count. Most the general public has seen them thanks to television. But Bob East, who built Sprint Cars for the teen-aged Gordon, has one that you probably haven't seen or heard.

Gordon was 17, still in the early stages of growing the mustache. He had run a race in El Centro, Calif., and was scheduled to fly over the mountains to Bakersville, Calif., for a another race the following day.

It was extremely foggy and East wasn't comfortable flying in a small plane. Neither was Gordon. So they rented an old Lincoln and drove across the desert, arriving after qualifying to put Gordon in a heat race.

"So he got in the car and didn't even know how to get on the track," East recalled. "He didn't even know where to go from pit road to get on the track, but he won the race. That was pretty amazing."

Amazing is the perfect way to describe Gordon's career. He's done things in cars that most only dream about. Many booed him early because he was a threat to their beloved Dale Earnhardt, but the boos are fewer and far between today.

Charles Barkley, who when he was playing for the Phoenix Suns befriended Gordon, once compared him to the Boston Celtics.

"When I was growing up, everybody hated the Celtics because they always won," Barkley said at the time. "Jeff Gordon is going through that same thing. When you think about it, there is no way possible that any person in the entire world should dislike him.

"What has he done except win? He's never in trouble, he's very religious, and he's always kicking butt. What more would you want in an athlete?"

Lessons Learned

On the day Gordon was supposed to graduate from high school, a major dirt track race was being held at his self-proclaimed home track in Bloomington, Ind. He wanted to skip the cap-and-gown ceremony, but his parents would have none of that.

No sooner than Gordon had his diploma in hand he was racing to the track. He arrived in time to finish second in qualifying and fourth in the feature race.

He admittedly calls it one of the best days of his life.

Bickford still wanted his stepson to attend college, so he made a deal that if Gordon performed well the rest of the summer he could continue racing. If not, he would continue his education.

Gordon didn't just perform well. He dominated the Sprint Car circuit.

The secret was out. The kid was damn good. NASCAR owners, such as former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, came calling. Gordon was flattered, but decided he wasn't ready. He still had dreams of being an IndyCar star.

A year later, there was no doubt, particularly after his initial experience at the Buck Baker Driving School in Rockingham in 1990.

"The first time I got into a stock car … I loved it to death," Gordon once said. "It felt right. I was just attracted to it right off the bat."

Destiny

Evernham still laughs when he thinks of the kid with the mustache, mullet and briefcase. It's hard for him to believe it's been that long since they began a journey that would make both stars.

The journey began with a bit of controversy. Some felt Gordon betrayed Ford when he left to join Hendrick's Chevrolet organization.

"When he finally came to talk to me about Rick Hendrick I gave him my opinion," Evernham said. "I told him Hendrick has some of the best stuff, but there's nobody over there that's using it right.

"You look at what he had, it was incredible. So Jeff went to Hendrick and said he wanted me to come with him. All that stuff that he wasn't fair with the Ford people, that's not true. He definitely was fair with them."

It didn't seem fair what Gordon did next. He won rookie of the year in 1993 with seven top-fives. A year later, he had two wins and finished eighth in points.

But in 1995 the real magic began. Gordon won seven races and his first title. He won 10 races the following season and finished second to teammate Terry Labonte by 37 points.

In '97, Gordon won 10 more races and a second title. He followed that with 13 wins and another title in 1998.

"Having Jeff Gordon driving and Randy Dorton motors made me a superstar," Evernham said, adding Hendrick Motorports' late engine builder to the equation. "God almighty. We had the best horsepower, I had the best drier. I felt like all I had to do was not screw up."

Had Evernham not left to start his own team with Dodge, who knows how many more wins and titles Gordon would have. Not that his career ended. After a down 2000 season, Gordon rallied to win a fourth title in 2001.

With three wins this season, he's poised to possibly win another. He's seldom driven better or with more courage than he did over the final laps on Tuesday.

"The thing I remember the most is the confidence that exuberated out of him," Loomis said. "I tell people all the time, working with a lot of drivers you're trying to bring confidence out of them. Working with Jeff, he instilled it in the crew chief and raised him up."

Gordon is on his fifth crew chief now in Alan Gustafson. And he's as hungry as a 19-year-old, wanting to win the title under the new point system that he's never done and proving Johnson isn't necessarily the best horse in the HMS stable because he's won five straight titles.

Jeff Gordon
NASCAR president Mike Helton presents a plaque to Jeff Gordon, marking his 85th career Sprint Cup win.

"I don't think we've seen how good he and Alan can be," Hendrick said.

Who knows, one day we may be talking about Gordon challenging Pearson for second place on NASCAR's all-time win list.

"Quite honestly, in the back of my mind I've always felt Jeff had a shot at David Pearson," Evernham said. "I knew he was going to get to third."

He believed that even when Gordon had a mustache and mullet that still makes people laugh.

"How can you not laugh when you see that," Gordon said. "I go back and look at it and I just laugh. It's all you can do. The difference is back then it was somewhat accepted in the racing community to look like that.

"The transformation and change, thank goodness I came to my senses."

Thank goodness Gordon came along.

That funny-looking kid became the face of NASCAR.

He's still a part of the future as well.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.