Gordon, a boy and his car
"Jeff has been one of those people who changed what a race car driver is. Look at Richard Petty. Look at Dale Earnhardt. Look at Cale Yarborough. Then look at Jeff Gordon. That's not the same picture. Jeff helped bring mainstream young America in to our sport," says driver Jeff Burton on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
He accomplished more in a racecar before age 30 than all but a few drivers have achieved in their careers. The first driver to reach $80 million in earnings, Jeff Gordon has won four Winston Cup titles and three Daytona 500s, emerging as an icon for a new generation of NASCAR fans.
"In years past, the circuit was nothing but gritty, slimy, bar-fighting guys who lived in the back of a pickup," said Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford. "[They] drank their breakfast and once they got on the track, just wanted to bang into each other."
Gordon's popularity surged to the point fans once blocked access to his home in Lake Norman, N.C., and reportedly videotaped the family cat through a window at his house.
No driver has started his career with such a splash. At 23, Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400. At 25, he became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500, a race in which he was the youngest participant by two years.
It took Gordon only 292 career starts to win his four Winston Cup titles. Dale Earnhardt needed 361 starts and Richard Petty 590 to reach the same plateau.
"Jeff is one of the greatest drivers," Mark Martin said. "You can't argue with results. And I can't compete with his record."
The 5-foot-7, 150-pound Gordon is also renowned for his good looks and humility, making him a favorite among Madison Avenue executives. In 2001 alone, he made an estimated $10 million in endorsements.
But Gordon hit a pothole the following year, when Brooke, his wife of seven years, filed for divorce and asked for half of Gordon's assets, which totaled $48.8 million. The divorce suit became fodder for supermarket tabloids and mainstream media alike before it was settled in June 2003. Brooke reportedly received upwards of $15.3 million.
The younger of Bill and Carol Gordon's two children, Jeff was born on Aug. 4, 1971 in Vallejo, Calif. Carol divorced Bill when Jeff was a year old, and months later married Bickford, an auto-parts maker with a passion for racing.
Bickford got Gordon, at age four, involved in bicycle motocross, but Carol soon forbid the activity, fearing for her son's safety. A year later, Gordon began driving quarter midgets and when he was eight he won his first of two national championships. Gordon drove a six-foot car with a single-cylinder engine and raced year-round on weekends.
The next year, he started beating 17-year-olds in go-karts. He began driving sprint cars at 13. In 1986, Bickford decided Gordon needed a change of scenery and the family moved to Pittsboro, Ind., so Gordon could be near tracks that allowed him to race legally at 14.
Around the time Gordon turned 19, his parents advised him to consider NASCAR. Attending a driving school run by former driver Buck Baker, Gordon was hooked. "After my first day the school I knew where my future was," Gordon said in his autobiography. "I loved stock-car racing."
In 1991, he secured his first fulltime ride, in NASCAR's Busch Series and was named the Rookie of the Year. He also competed in open-wheel cars that year and won the USAC silver crown championship.
Ray Evernham became Gordon's fulltime crew chief in 1992, remaining in that position until September 1999, when he left to lead Dodge's NASCAR team. Gordon set a record for poles with 11 and won three races in 1992 as he caught the eye of Winston Cup owner Rick Hendrick, who made him part of the Hendrick Motorsports team. Gordon collected $412,000 to lead the Busch Series in earnings while finishing fourth in the season standings.
Gordon made one Winston Cup race that year before joining the circuit fulltime in 1993. He finished 14th in the standings and took NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors, with record first-year earnings of $765,000 despite not winning a race. That year, he met Brooke Sealey, one of the Miss Winston models, in Victory Lane after Gordon won a 125-mile qualifier at Daytona.
At the Coca-Cola 600 in 1994, Gordon recorded his first Winston Cup victory. But that served as just a primer for the win that thrust him into the national spotlight. Two days after his 23rd birthday, Gordon won the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to collect $613,000, the richest purse for a stock-car race.
Three months later, he married Sealey. But Gordon soon had a divorce of sorts to contend with when he replaced his stepfather as his business manager in May 1995, straining their relationship.
In 1997, when he was 25, he scaled another barrier, winning the Daytona 500. Gordon went for dramatics later that year, winning his second Winston Cup title by finishing 17th in the season-finale in Atlanta - he needed to come in 18th or better to claim the crown. His 14-point margin over Dale Jarrett was the fourth-closest in Winston Cup history.
In 1998, Gordon tied NASCAR's modern-era record with four straight victories. He won at Pocono, the Brickyard, Watkins Glen and Michigan before the streak ended at Bristol, Tenn. In the five weeks, he won $2.1 million in front of an estimated 870,000 fans. At the Brickyard alone, Gordon earned $1.64 million, the largest winner's share in auto-racing history. He won 13 races overall, tying Petty's record set in 1975, and gained his third Winston Cup title.
In 1999, Gordon won the Daytona 500 for the second time. That October, he signed a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports, whom he had been with since 1992, that gave him part ownership of the race team. While Gordon captured seven races for the season, he also failed to finish seven, dropping him to sixth in the standings.
He struggled in 2000, accentuated by a four-race stretch in August during which he failed to produce a top 20 finish. While Gordon rebounded in 2001 for his fourth Winston Cup championship, his personal life wasn't running so smoothly.
It got worse in March 2002 when Brooke filed for divorce, citing her husband 's "marital misconduct." Six months later, Gordon counter-sued his wife for divorce, saying Brooke shouldn't receive half his fortune because he risked his life to accumulate his wealth. Brooke disputed that claim.
Distracted, Gordon's winless streak reached 31 races, the longest drought since his rookie season, before he finally won in Bristol in 2002. He followed up by winning the next week at Darlington. He finished with three victories and 13 top-five finishes as he ended fourth in the standings.
In 2003, Gordon again finished fourth. He improved to third the next year, when he won five races. Then in 2005, Gordon won his third Daytona 500, overtaking Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the 198th lap. He became the fifth driver to win three Daytona 500s. "This one is sweeter than the other two," Gordon said. "It was an amazing finish." But the rest of the year wasn't as sweet to Gordon as he finished a disappointing 11th in points.
Gordon won only two races in 2006, coming in sixth in the Cup standings and earning $5.7 million. He finished the year on a high note, marrying Belgian model Ingrid Vandebosch in Mexico in November.
In April 2007, Gordon ended a lengthy slump by winning two races to give him 77 and pass Earnhardt for sixth on NASCAR's all-time victory list. Two months later, he became a father for the first time when Ingrid gave birth to Ella Sofia Gordon.
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