Jeff Gordon thought he wanted to be an open-wheel racer, but that all changed when he attended the Buck Baker Driving School in Rockingham, N.C., and learned the craft of stock cars.
He left knowing that he had been called: “I know what I want to do.”
What he ultimately became was a transformational, not to mention polarizing (he is loved and hated), figure in his sport. He not only has won four Sprint Cup titles and three Daytona 500s, but the California native raised in Indiana also is credited with expanding the sport’s fan base from its roots in the Deep South.
“To me, the most transformational,” said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. “And I don’t say that to be disrespectful to anybody else. It’s just I never thought of Richard Petty hosting Live with Kelly and Michael or Cale Yarborough hosting Saturday Night Live.”
In other words, in the opinion of one man, Gordon is his sport’s Ruth, Jordan or Gretzky.
Gordon, 44, will be making his last start at Texas Motor Speedway in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 as he pursues a storybook ending to his Hall of Fame career and a potential fifth championship.
Sunday he will also be seeking his second victory in Fort Worth and vindication for last year’s infamous run-in with Brad Keselowski.
Gossage suggested there might not even have been a market to build TMS, which opened in 1997, without Gordon’s popularity.
“There are certain people you meet, you just know they are special,” Gossage said. “And Jeff has always been special. The cool thing about Jeff, is he’s remained Jeff. He hasn’t changed.”
Racing peers and fans spoke about him this weekend at the track:
“I wear his underwear, you want to see? He has brought NASCAR to such a high level of respect with racing against each other and clean racing. He’s great to the fans.”
Miles Brosang, Tyler
There are certain people you meet, you just know they are special. And Jeff has always been special.
TMS president Eddie Gossage
“I have this picture actually and it is kind of a montage that my sister put together for me and one them is of me and Jeff when I was driving at Hendrick in 2008, and he was giving me some advice and that is a moment I will never forget. Having him come over and give me some advice was probably one of my fondest memories.”
“I remember the first time I passed him for position and that was one of those things that was like ‘wow, this is really cool to be racing and passing Jeff Gordon.’ ”
Martin Truex Jr.
“My favorite memory was getting my first win by beating Jeff by about six inches at Atlanta. I know that is probably a little bit biased. One of the coolest moments for me is when we would go to Las Vegas and test over the winter. The Xfinity cars and the Cup cars would run together. There weren’t separate days. The first car I pulled out behind was Jeff Gordon and I remember thinking how cool it was because Jeff Gordon is a legend in this sport.”
“I really didn’t pay that much attention to NASCAR until I started watching him. We were standing right here last year when ‘that wonderful guy’ kicked him out of the race.”
Bobby Turner, Tyler
“He’s given me a hard time about a thing or two. I had a run-in with him one time. He’s a little guy, but he was poking me in the chest telling me about something he didn’t like and, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll give you the first couple of pokes, but after that ….”
Eddie Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway president
“Jeff not only is a good friend and mentor to me, but he’s the reason I’m in the sport. While I got a job on the 24 car, he gave me the opportunity to be his crew chief. Jeff decided that I would be the next guy, a 26-year-old kid taking the reins of a four-time champion. That opened doors for me. I’ll always be indebted for that.”
Steve Letarte, NBC analyst and Gordon’s former crew chief
“I think my favorite memory was Sonoma where, for me that road course win was huge and to have Jeff Gordon finish second — really it meant a lot to me to hold him off and win there having watched him race and been successful at that track. The coolest part was him coming to victory lane and congratulating me on a good race — that was really special to me.”
“And Tony [Stewart] is coming up next year, so we have an all-around retirement, old-man tour going on. It’ll be different without him, but he’s still going to be in our sport, and I think he’s going to be a valuable asset to the Fox team.”
“I love Jeff Gordon because of his character and the way that he is on the racetrack. He’s a tough competitor and a great guy.”
Anthony Johnson, Arlington
“[His retirement this year] kind of reminds you of the time when [Hall of Fame quarterback] John Elway won the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos and then retired. That’s what we’re experiencing right now with a four-time champion in Jeff Gordon.”