Originally Published: February 18, 2015 6 a.m.
NASCAR is losing an icon. Jeff Gordon recently announced that 2015 will be his last season racing fulltime in the Sprint Cup Series. Every driver should utter a "Thank you" to the guy who ushered in stock car racing's current era.
Gordon has spent the past 23 seasons wheeling a stock car around tracks that span the country from east to west and north to south. When Gordon burst onto the scene in 1993 NASCAR was still a mostly southern sport - 13 of its 30 races were held in two states, North Carolina or Virginia. Drivers were mostly grizzled "good 'ole boys," descendants of moonshiners who ran illegal whiskey during the week and raced each other for bragging rights and odd change on weekends.
In contrast to the moonshiners, Gordon was born in California where he began racing quarter midgets at age 5. His family later moved to Indiana to support his racing career. After successfully running midgets as a teenager, Gordon hooked a ride in NASCAR's Triple-A XFINITY Series, then called the Busch Series, where he won rookie of the year honors in 1991. Rick Hendrick signed Gordon to drive the #24 car in 1993 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Gordon's career accomplishments include winning four championships - only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven and Jimmie Johnson with six have won more - and 92 races. That's the third most in Cup history and the most in the modern era (since 1972 when NASCAR instituted a number of rules designed to legitimize the sport and make racing more consistent).
Among Gordon's NASCAR records are a streak of 23 consecutive years with at least one pole. His career total of 78 poles - his latest being for this year's Daytona 500 - leads all active drivers. Gordon also holds NASCAR's iron-man record, driving in 761 consecutive races and counting. In 2009 Gordon became the first NASCAR driver with $100 million in race winnings and Foxsports.com named him the fifth greatest driver of all time.
Gordon's on-track success can't be minimized but it could have been even greater. If NASCAR hadn't changed its format for determining a champion, Gordon could be looking at his eighth championship in 2015, which would put him ahead of Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson. In order to create the playoff atmosphere that exists in other sports, NASCAR initiated the Chase format in 2004. With 10 races to go in the season, the point totals for drivers who make the Chase are reset, virtually equalizing them. Gordon hasn't won a championship since the Chase was initiated. If the old format had remained, Gordon would have won three additional titles - in 2004, 2007 and last year.
But Gordon's on track accomplishments are arguably second to what he has done for the sport off the track. Gordon changed the image of what the public expected a stock car driver to look like and Madison Avenue, along with the television networks, took notice. Gordon was not only good, he was marketable beyond the sport's traditional roots. NASCAR was transformed from a regional sport to one that is now embraced by mainstream America.
Gordon was also polarizing, capturing new fans for the sport while at the same time generating enmity among NASCAR traditionalists. It didn't hurt that Gordon's first eight years in Cup were punctuated by constant comparison to NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, who dubbed Gordon "Wonder Boy." NASCAR fans are among the most passionate in sports. Until Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, fans of the two drivers - with an assist from the media - promoted the notion of a feud between the two men. In reality, although they were fierce competitors on the track, the relationship between the two drivers was one of mutual respect and admiration.
Beginning this season, NASCAR will receive more than $800 million annually from its television contracts with Fox and NBC. While that money pales in comparison to the NFL's annual take of more than $5 billion, it compares favorably with the television deal for March Madness. It's also double the amount NASCAR earned in 1999.
While Gordon shouldn't be given full credit for NASCAR's riches, everyone associated with the sport has benefited mightily from his impact. He will be missed.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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