The Racing Capital
of the World
February 18, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was 20 years ago that a scrawny kid with a cheesy-looking mustache and a Buster Brown haircut from Pittsboro, Ind., showed up at Daytona International Speedway for his first Daytona 500. He arrived with a lot of hype as NASCAR’s star of the future, and he immediately backed that up by winning for the first time in a Cup car in the first of two Gatorade 125 qualifying races in 1993.
That Hoosier hotshot was Jeff Gordon, who would go on to become the face of NASCAR for a generation. Gordon racked up some of the most impressive statistics of that era, including winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon has won four Brickyard 400s, three Daytona 500s and four NASCAR Sprint Cup titles and 87 Cup races during his career.
Only NASCAR legends Richard Petty, with 200, and David Pearson, with 105, have won more races than Gordon.
Not bad for a kid who had a “gee whiz” attitude when he drove a rainbow-colored DuPont Chevrolet into Daytona Victory Lane after winning that qualifying race in 1993.
“That was huge,” Gordon said of that victory. “That was more of I didn't expect anything, didn't plan on it, and it happened. I was just like, Wow, how did that just happen? Now I go into the Duels, make that same move and finish 15th. I'm like, 'Gosh, the move worked that time, not necessarily other times.'
“We've won a bunch of Duels. In 1993, it was a very special Daytona 500 for me. It's one I'll always remember because we qualified well, won the Duel, battled all day long in the top five with Dale, not just Earnhardt, but Jarrett, who won the race. It was a surreal experience for me that I'll never forget. My mind wandered during that race. There were only four or five of us up there, so you could breathe a little bit more. I just remember trying to take it all in. I mean, full grandstands, live television, Daytona 500, and I'm sitting there in a position as a rookie making an impact on the race and the sport, starting my career. That was exciting to me.”
Gordon was barely in his 20s when he arrived at Daytona that year; now he is in his 40s. While his boyish enthusiasm has been tempered by veteran experience, he is driven to succeed and is determined to score another win in the Daytona 500.
Has it really been 20 years?
“No, I can't believe it,” he said. “When I look in the mirror, I see more wrinkles and gray hair; I know it has been a while. I look at some of those old photos and things. It's been a heck of a ride, a lot of fun, great and challenging moments. I wouldn't have wanted or asked for anything different than the way it's been over the last 20 years.
“I've gotten beat up and beat myself up a little bit not being as competitive as I was 10 years ago. No matter how long you've been in this sport, when you're competitive like that, it's hard to manage those expectations. I'm so excited the way this team has stepped up. Winning the final race of the year last year was big for us. I think I've got a crew chief that can take us all the way. The pressure's on me to step up my game and maintain that level of consistency and drive and talent that I've had that's gotten me to this level and has gotten us wins and championships.
“I know that I don't have 10 more years left in me. It's important to me to stay competitive as long as I possibly can. I think I definitely have a few more good years left in me.”
The autumn of Gordon’s career is more like an “Indian summer” because the competitive fire still burns fiercely in Gordon’s spirit because he wants it all – a win in the Daytona 500, a win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July and another NASCAR Cup title.
“Everybody wants a Daytona 500 win,” Gordon said. “If you don't win another race, you win the Daytona 500; it's made a huge impact on your career. If you've won championships and haven't won the Daytona 500, you feel like you're missing something on your résumé. It is obviously very, very important to your stats and where your career is going.
“I've always looked at it as the single biggest race we have is this one. The single biggest thing we strive for is the championship in every season. So the championship is really the ultimate goal. But when you just look at each race you prepare for, you prepare for this one different.
“It is different. It's a huge, huge event. For all the good reasons, the history, the excitement and energy that this track and this event has is second to none.”
Even a driver as experienced and wise as Gordon still admits to getting jacked up before the Daytona 500. It’s a race every stock car driver dreams of winning, and Gordon knows what is like to make that dream a reality.
“Come Sunday morning, right when you're getting ready to take the green flag, everybody probably handles it differently,” Gordon said. “But for me, it's, ‘Oh, wow, the Daytona 500 is getting ready to start. It's a huge race. We've prepared and worked so hard. It's just been all work up to that point. It's all on the line, and this is the moment.
“So there's no doubt for me there's a few butterflies. Then once the green flag drops, it's back to business.”