It was a fall afternoon in 1992 when it all began. A day that included a title battle between six drivers, all of which had a mathematical chance of leaving the Atlanta Motor Speedway with a championship. It also included a final trip around the track for a man that had been simply known as “The King.” It was already an exciting race that had all eyes on a final race in what had been an incredible season.
Yet amongst all this, one other storyline was already beginning. A young, 21-year-old sensation was getting his first taste of Cup competition. His car had a look that caught the eye of everyone on television and everyone in attendance.
That afternoon, a young Jeff Gordon began his Cup career, not knowing if he would have success, be mediocre, or end up leaving to try out a different genre of racing.
It is now 24 years later, and things are a lot different. On a Thursday and in Charlotte, North Carolina, Gordon was in a suit of a different type. There was no kevlar, no helmet, wiring or HANS device. Instead, it was a casual suit, surrounded by his team and owners. Instead, it was Gordon addressing his team in two ways, as a driver, and as a family man.
Gordon came to the conclusion that after seeing everything change in the sport he’s known for so long, from the car he drove, to the crew members, to how people got news within the sport before then after the race, and now even within it, the time had come. The 2015 season would be the final time that the man who entered NASCAR with the nickname of “Wonder Boy”, with a team known as the “Rainbow Warriors”, and is now known as “Big Daddy,” would suit up for the Sprint Unlimited, The All-Star Race, and the rest of the 36-race schedule on a full-time basis. The lead warrior of Hendrick had decided he was at the end of the rainbow.
After over two decades of being behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet, he has certainly earned everything he’s ever dreamed of in his career.
The “Wonder Boy” name was given to him by Dale Earnhardt, a driver whom he battled against en route to his first career championship in 1995. He toasted the occasion at the Waldorf Astoria hotel during the awards banquet not with a glass of champagne like everyone else, but instead with a tall glass of milk, something Earnhardt joked about earlier in the year. But at the same time, the veteran driver saw something in the young man that made him improve in himself, and also explore possibilities of what the two could do outside the sport. The two, along with Rusty Wallace, helped in the launch of Chase Authentics, which has become the leading NASCAR merchandise brand in the sport. Along with that came Action Racing Collectables, allowing fans to own small die-casts of the cars driven on the track. Today, now known as Motorsports Authentics, practically every team has a car out there for fans to buy.
Gordon set records early in his career, as he had three back-to-back seasons with 10+ wins, including a record-tying 13 in 1998, where he dominated to win his third championship.
The car made him famous, and also gave his retractors. The bright rainbow hues certainly were easy to spot on the asphalt, but it caused others to parody the look with ideas of their own. He wasn’t from “NASCAR country,” because rather than catch a fish, he’d rather swim with them. He didn’t drive a truck, but instead a powerful car. He wasn’t a southern boy, but did spend a lot of time in Indianapolis, what can be considered the Holy Grail of auto racing.
Yet with all his 92 wins and four championships, there were still dark times.
After winning a championship in 2001, he would find himself in a battle outside the track, as he and then-wife Brooke were going through a divorce. He would struggle on track, and people already began wondering if he was losing his edge. But then, he met someone that would change his entire life, both on the track and off. Her name was Ingrid Vandbosch, and the two clicked. In 2007, the two got married. Then, along came something Gordon never had with his first marriage…a child. His daughter Ella became a fixture at the track, even joining him in victory lane for the first time at the fall Talladega race that season.
Years later, along came son Leo. The Gordon family has become one of four, with each having their own personalities and seemingly giving Gordon new life in his career, because he now wanted to not win for himself, but for those that come after him.
In the later stages of his career, a lot of folks were wondering if Gordon had lost something. Between 2008 and 2010, he only achieved one victory, and at the same time began dealing with back issues. Was the driver losing his touch, and was it time for the No. 24 to sail off into the sunset?
That question was erased the last two years, where Gordon showed he could still compete for wins, and also show he was capable of winning championships. At the same time, on the track, he was showing that he still had the same desire to get to the bottom of issues that bothered him. He’s had run-ins with legends such as Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace, plus even his own teammate Jimmie Johnson. But his most infamous battles came against Clint Bowyer in 2012, and Brad Keselowski this past season. There may have been questions about the desire of Gordon on the track, but in the last few years it’s disappeared.
Now, he’s at the final quest. Since 2002, the “Drive for Five” has been his desire to fulfill. He’s seen Johnson win five straight, and then a sixth two years ago. Yet his journey isn’t complete. He has one final chance.
But even if the quest for that fifth championship goes unfulfilled, that doesn’t mean the journey to get to that point was nothing. Gordon has done everything in the business a driver could dream of. He’s been the one driving a car that was banned after one race, was one of the first to run a “special” paint scheme, and helped change what many considered a typical NASCAR driver. He’s been one of the drivers to change what the sport was all about, and ushered in an era where drivers don’t necessarily have to come from the local dirt tracks to get into the sport. Those that race open-wheel sprint cars, or even Indy Cars, were given the chance to try NASCAR, and some have found great success.
Gordon in many ways changed what NASCAR was, and continues to now.
His career began in a car that had rainbows on it. He’s driven cars with flames, superheroes, dollar bills and dinosaurs. His sponsors have ranged from DuPont to Pepsi, Nicorette to National Guard, Drive to End Hunger to Panasonic and others in between. He’s competed alongside the likes of Earnhardt, Wallace, Johnson, Stewart, and Keselowski. He’s won trophies, and started a family. He’s seen change in every aspect of this sport, from the media aspect to how he perceives it.
Gordon has done it all, and now he’s decided to walk away after 24 years at the wheel. When that checkered flag waves at Homestead on Nov. 22, it will be over. He won’t be behind the wheel, but will still be involved in the sport.
No matter what, the “Wonder Boy” that soon became known as “Big Daddy” has earned the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.