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Jul 24, 2016
July 06, 2012 | By John Oreovicz
Jeff Gordon wasn’t the first USAC short-track star to pursue a career in stock cars instead of Indy cars.
But he was the symbolic trailblazer who broke the mold in the early 1990s, and since then, USAC midgets and sprint cars have become the accepted path to NASCAR – which is no surprise, actually, given the fact that modern Indy cars have little in common with USAC cars other than four wheels and a steering wheel.
Gordon was born and raised in northern California, but with his mother and stepfather John Bickford, he moved to Pittsboro, Indiana when he was a teenager to be closer to the center of the USAC scene. Pittsboro and greater Indianapolis have long claimed Gordon as one of their own, despite the fact that he lived in Indiana for just a few years during the developmental phase of his racing career. Gordon won the USAC midget title in 1990 and the sprint car crown a year later, becoming the youngest ever series champion at age 20.
Gordon and Bickford visited the CART-sanctioned Indy car race at Cleveland in 1990 and were told that they needed to bring their own sponsorship or funding to get Jeff into the CART series. They turned their focus to NASCAR, running the Busch (now Nationwide) Series for Bill Davis Racing. Gordon was Rookie of the Year in 1991 and he set a record by nabbing 11 pole positions in 1992.
That led Gordon to where he remains today, 20 years later: a Sprint Cup driver for Hendrick Motorsports. He was the Cup Series’ Rookie of the Year in 1993 and scored his first Cup race win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
A far more significant victory came a couple of months later when, in fairytale fashion, Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon’s victory was significant on a number of levels; as an adopted hometown boy, the win was extremely popular in Indianapolis, and it no doubt contributed to the city of Indianapolis’ transition to a “NASCAR town” in the 1990s while Indy car racing was at the start of a decade-long battle for control of the sport.
Nicknamed “Wonder Boy” by the late Dale Earnhardt, Gordon claimed his first NASCAR Cup championship in 1995 after a season long battle with Earnhardt. Gordon improved on his seven-win 1995 season a year later, taking ten victories, but he lost out in the championship to Dale Jarrett. However, Gordon started 1997 by winning the Daytona 500 and went on to his second Cup crown.
His most successful campaign came in 1998, when Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham teamed to win 13 races, a modern era NASCAR record, and a third championship. Gordon’s fourth and most recent Cup title came in 2001 with Robbie Loomis as crew chief.
Although success has come more sporadically for Gordon and the #24 team, he still ranks as one of NASCAR’s most feared competitors. He retains a great reverence for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he is one of just a few drivers who have scored four race wins at IMS, adding Brickyard 400 victories in 1998, 2001 and 2004. He also won the Daytona 500 in 1997 and ’99.
Gordon formed a new NASCAR cup team in 2004 in conjunction with Hendrick. The #48 team with driver Jimmie Johnson has dominated the last six years of NASCAR competition, while Gordon has sometimes struggled. The switch to the “Chase” playoff format has not worked in Gordon’s favor and he has finished higher than sixth in the standings only twice. He is enduring a difficult 2012 campaign and looks unlikely to qualify for the Chase for the first time in his career.
Gordon’s 10-year marriage to former Miss Winston Brooke Sealey became tabloid fodder, but he is happily settled these days in Manhattan with former swimsuit model Ingrid Vandebosch and their two children.
Even though the Daytona 500 is the biggest race on the NASCAR schedule, Gordon still ranks the Brickyard 400 as his personal Number One.
“For anybody that grew up in Indiana and went to the Indianapolis 500 as many times as I did as a kid, the Brickyard kind of outweighs [Daytona] from a personal standpoint,” he said.
“When I finally got the chance to drive down the front straightaway, it was like, ‘Whoa!!’ And then to win the inaugural race? Unbelievable. But I don’t think what I’ve done should ever be compared to what A.J. Foyt or Al Unser or Rick Mears did here with their four Indianapolis 500 victories, and I don’t think Michael Schumacher’s five [Formula 1] wins should be compared either.
“They are all completely different disciplines — sometimes on a completely different track.”