By Jordan Kobritz
If there was any justice in sports, Jeff Gordon would have been hoisting the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship trophy at the end of the Homestead race on Sunday. Instead, Gordon settled for a sixth place finish which left him third overall in this year’s series.
Gordon announced in January that 2015 would be his last season of racing. And despite the lack of a Hollywood ending, he had a career for the ages. He won four overall championships – fourth most in Cup history – in his 23 years of racing in NASCAR’s top series. Gordon finished third on the sport’s all-time wins list – behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson – with 93 victories. He won more than a third of the scheduled Cup races in the 1996-98 seasons, an impressive record of dominance that is unmatched in the modern era of racing.
Gordon was only 20 years old when he made his Cup debut in the last race of the ’92 season, which ironically coincided with the final race of Petty’s career. It was the beginning of a new era in NASCAR and Gordon led the way.
Unlike the majority of race car drivers then and now who have roots in the South, Gordon was born in California and grew up in the Midwest. His intense driving style – which mirrored fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt’s – his boyish good looks, talent, and restrained public demeanor helped to usher the sport into the 90’s. He shattered the existing stereotype of a NASCAR driver. Almost overnight NASCAR went from a niche sport reserved for good ol’ boys to Madison Avenue chic. Thanks in no small part to Gordon’s contributions, the sport’s television ratings soared and track attendance jumped dramatically. NASCAR expanded from its traditional southern base and began racing from coast to coast, north to south.
Gordon won all of his championships between 1995 and 2001. Those were the pre-Chase days when each race on the schedule was weighted equally. The champion at the end of the season was simply the driver who had accumulated the most points. After his fourth title in nine years of full-time racing, Gordon seemed destined to surpass the record seven Cup titles held jointly by Petty and Earnhardt.
But in an effort to create more drama in the last third of the season, NASCAR concocted a playoff format in 2004 that mimicked other sports. Forget that auto racing isn’t like other sports. After all, what other sport holds a playoff that allows everyone to continue playing, even defeated teams or players? Had the old format remained in place, Gordon would have won three more Cup championships. But the new format proved to be unconquerable. He wasn’t alone. Tony Stewart is the only Cup driver to win a championship under both the old Points format and the new Chase format.
No driver suffered more from the advent of the Chase than Jeff Gordon. Although the change may have helped make NASCAR more relevant during the fall sports season – think football – it also prevented Gordon from staking a claim in history. Instead of going down as NASCAR’s greatest driver, his legacy will be one of the sport’s most successful, on and off the track.
Gordon was bestowed the moniker “Wonder Boy” by Earnhardt, his main adversary from 1993 through the end of the 2000 season when the duo won five of eight possible championships. Earnhardt, the inveterate needler, was merely referring to Gordon’s youth and good looks when he used the nickname. But NASCAR fans immediately sensed hostility between the two, even though none existed. In fact, the man known as the Intimidator liked and respected Gordon, in part because Gordon never hesitated to go door-to-door with the veteran driver on the track.
But the faux hatred was good for the sport and benefited each of them personally. It was fanned by the press, which heightened the rivalry among fans and sold merchandise, putting money into both of their pockets.
Hollywood endings don’t always occur in real life. Earnhardt died on the track during the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. After failing to win his fifth Cup title, Gordon is also gone, albeit under less tragic circumstances. The sport of NASCAR is diminished by the absence of both men.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.