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The Final Turn

On the eve of his retirement, Jeff Gordon looks back at a career that redefined NASCAR

Author Robert Edelstein Illustration Sean McCabe

thefan

Earlier this year, on a blazing June afternoon at Pennsylvania’s Pocono International Raceway, four-time NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon walked down a roped-off pathway with several hundred fans lined up on either side. Typically, drivers sign only a few autographs on the slow walk to meet the press at the Media Center, but not Gordon—not on this day. He lingered, signing dozens, and when he got to the door, he turned and walked slowly back, signing dozens more, like a man savoring every last moment. And perhaps he was, given that the 44-year-old was in the midst of his 23rd and final season in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series. (His final race is November 22, at Homestead-Miami Speedway.)

One of the fans, 18-year-old New Jersey native Joe Wendt, was somewhat less contemplative. “Oh my god, I just got Jeff Gordon’s autograph!” he shouted. “I can’t believe it!”

The kid had good reason for his lottery-winner smile: As with millions of NASCAR fans over the past two decades, it was Gordon who turned him into a believer. “He won the first race I ever went to, the 2005 Daytona 500,” Wendt said. Thanks to Gordon, he became a fan for life at the age of 8.

Half an hour later, standing in his transporter near the Pocono garage area, Gordon could only shake his head at this story. “It took me a little while to fully appreciate the fulfillment for all the fans, and how amazing that is,” he said. “And now, closing in on the end of my final season, I think I have a much greater perspective and appreciation.”

Don’t let his modesty fool you. Gordon is one of the most important figures in NASCAR history. The onset of his career helped usher the sport into its current era, one that has seen NASCAR evolve beyond its Southern roots into a Madison Avenue–friendly commodity in which drivers have to be both car- and camera-ready. The telegenic Gordon’s success helped propel this change; he won championships in 1995, ’97, ’98 and 2001, and his friendly rivalry with “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt Sr., brought in new fans at a time when the sport was signing ever more lucrative TV contracts.

“He was the perfect driver [for his era] because of the time he came along,” recalls Richard “The King” Petty, NASCAR’s biggest legend, whose last race, at the end of the 1992 season, was also Gordon’s first. “He was a little bit different. He was real young, and us old heads kinda moved out, and the young heads took over.”

Unlike most previous NASCAR stars, Gordon wasn’t from the South—he was born in California and raised in Indiana—and he cut his teeth in open-wheel racing rather than on the dirt ovals that are popular below the Mason-Dixon Line. By age 6, he’d set five track records driving quarter-midget cars, and he won several track championships driving sprint cars as a teenager. This path would typically have led him toward the somewhat more cosmopolitan world of IndyCar competition, à la the Andretti and Unser families, but open-wheel opportunities were scarce in the early ’90s, so Gordon opted for the stock-car path. For decades, there had been very little crossover between the two styles of racing, but Gordon’s success steered Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, Danica Patrick and a host of other open-wheel racers toward his circuit.

“I can vividly remember having conversations with people saying, ‘Well, Jeff Gordon came from a different background. Now we’re looking at drivers from other backgrounds,’” says six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, who grew up in California and became Gordon’s protégé and teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. “I firmly believe that, had I not met Jeff in 2000, at the August Michigan race, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Given Gordon’s success, NASCAR teams would have been foolish not to look for drivers similar to him. He has 92 career victories, good enough for third on the all-time list, behind Petty and David Pearson. His earnings, at close to $150 million (without counting a mountain of endorsements), put him tops all-time. He’s second to Petty in top 10s, third in poles and was set this season to become the leader in consecutive all-time starts. His career is inarguably one for the ages.

He also became NASCAR’s pop culture pioneer, having made the cover of Fortune and hosted “Saturday Night Live,” once unheard-of achievements for the sport. He has even subbed on “Live! With Regis and Kelly” and made numerous appearances on “Kelly and Michael.”

Chronic back pain has plagued Gordon over the last couple of years, forcing him toward retirement, but those previous onscreen gigs have helped prepare him for work as a commentator on Fox’s NASCAR coverage, starting next season. He’s also looking forward to spending more time with his wife, model Ingrid Vandebosch, and their children, Ella, 8, and Leo, 5. Not surprisingly, the kids have the racing gene, and the Gordons have bought each quarter-midget race cars.

“It’s nerve-racking but also fun and challenging watching them,” Gordon says. “We’ll see if either of them likes it as they get older. That would be so cool.”

Bigger than the shift Gordon will be going through is the one the sport will likely experience as it searches for a new standard bearer following his exit.

“It’ll be different,” says teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. “We haven’t had someone [of Gordon’s importance] retire in a while.”

But ask Gordon about his racing legacy, and all he does is shrug. 

“It’s not the way I think,” he says. “I just try to give everything I can back to the sport. I want to be the best damn driver I can be. Hopefully, that’s a way that defines me.”

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