Jeff Gordon started racing in his native California when he was just a kid and moved east to Indiana with his father when he was a teenager to race midget and sprint cars. He won USAC’s midget and Silver Crown championships in successive years in 1990 and ’91, then moved to NASCAR running one year in the second division Busch series. In 1993 he won the premier Winston Cup series rookie of the year title in his first year with Rick Hendrick’s team when he was 22.
Jeff went on to win four NASCAR championships with Hendrick’s multi-car Chevrolet team in ‘95, ’97, ’98 and ‘01. Last year, at 43, he won four races and has accumulated 92 Sprint Cup wins over 22 seasons and is ranked third on NASCAR’s all-time winners list to Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105). Gordon’s record also includes 77 pole positions, also third on the all-time list, and 761 starts. Thus far, he’s won the Daytona 500 three times (‘97, ’98 and ’05) and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis five times (‘94, ’98, ’01, ’04 and ’14).
Gordon (24) leads Dale Earnhardt (3), Lake Speed (9) and Bill Elliott (94) at Daytona, 1995
After Jeff won his fourth championship in 2001 Hendrick offered him an ownership interest in the team. A year or two later Gordon watched a young rookie named Jimmie Johnson test at Darlington and was so impressed he quickly convinced Hendrick to hire him. These days Jeff co-owns six-time champion Johnson’s #48 team and holds an equity stake in his own #24 team. Hendrick also runs cars for Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88) and Kasey Kahne (#5) and employs more than 500 people at the giant Hendrick Motorsports operation in North Carolina.
Gordon ran into some back problems a few years ago but has learned to live with it through improved fitness training after medical tests revealed there was nothing fundamentally wrong. “I had a bunch of MRIs and they came back and said they couldn’t really say what was wrong with it,” he says. “So I started to work out more to strengthen that area. It’s good to know that there’s not anything major wrong. It’s probably just from years of racing.
“So I just put my head down and worked away at it and I try to not focus on it. Every time I get out of the car I’m stiff and it hurts. But it’s not bothering me when I’m in the car and as long as the guys on this team keep giving me the kind of race car they’ve been giving me the last few years it makes me not focus on my back anymore.”
Sears Point, 2000
At Indianapolis in 2002 Gordon traded his NASCAR Chevrolet for a few laps in Juan Pablo Montoya’s F1 Williams-BMW. “It was the most incredible experience I ever had in my life,” Jeff declares. “It was just a very short experience but the physical side of those cars is much more demanding. I compare it to a jet pilot in the military. You have to be in incredible physical shape because the car has so much grip it’s capable of doing more than what the body is capable of.
“A Formula 1 car is the ultimate and that car did everything you want a car to do. It stopped better than I can imagine, it turned better than I could imagine, it had more grip than I could ever imagine and accelerated better than I could have imagined. So in a lot of ways it was one of the easier cars I’ve ever driven. But to go fast, to compete on that level, how hard you would have to push yourself and your car to find that last second or two, it would be very challenging. Plus you have to learn all the different tracks. But it was an awesome experience, one I’ll never forget.
“But I still say that of all the cars I’ve driven over the years a non-wing sprint car would probably be number one. A stock car would be number two and I would put the Formula 1 car from a difficulty standpoint further down the list. But on a fun level the Formula 1 car is at the top of the list by a mile. When you drive a car like a stock car, then you go get in a Formula 1 car, that’s a dream.”
Gordon says NASCAR’s strict rules and constant new restrictions allow the ruling body to achieve its twin goals of extremely close competition and cars that are visibly difficult to drive. “I believe every race car, when you push it to its limit, is always going to have areas of uncertainty or instability,” he chuckles. “But I think with our cars there’s a lot more of that. It’s just something you have to adapt to and get used to. But that doesn’t stop me from asking my crew chief and our engineers to try to make it better and certainly, each year, we do improve the car.
“But because of the rules that NASCAR puts on us it makes it very challenging. If we had wide-open rules it would be fun and fairly easy to fix some of our problems. But that’s not the way NASCAR wants it. I’ve driven a lot of different race cars and I think that a stock car at a place like Bristol is one of the most difficult. Again, I’d say a stock car and a non-winged sprint car are two of the most difficult race cars that I’ve ever driven.”
Jeff has no doubts about the key element in his success. “Number one is I started very young. My parents got me into a quarter midget when I was five-and-a-half years old and they recognised I had something special behind the wheel. I was fortunate enough that they were able to help me pursue that.
“I drove a sprint car when I was 13 years old and that’s something that took me about 10 years ahead of most of the guys I was racing against. So I got some valuable experience at a young age and that got me to the Cup series at a young age. People believed in what I was doing and luckily I was able to back it up enough times to build on that momentum.
“When I was younger I might have had more energy and I might’ve wanted to drive everything that had wheels on it, but it was a different kind of passion. Today, I just know how much I really enjoy being a part of the sport and how important is to me and my life and how it’s played such a crucial role in my life. All the memories I have throughout my life have been in racing and I’m still very passionate about it.”
Jeff Gordon is America’s greatest racing star of the modern era and everyone at Motor Sport wishes him the best of luck on his 23rd and final season of Sprint Cup racing.