24 January 2015

Jeff Gordon will no longer race full-time after 2015

(RacingOne/ISC Archives)
As we count down the days to Speedweeks as we are less than a month away from the 57th running of the Daytona 500, one of the true legends of NASCAR will be embarking on his final full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. Jeff Gordon made the announcement on Thursday morning at Hendrick Motorsports, the team Gordon has raced for since November 1992 when he made his Cup debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway in what may have been the greatest race in NASCAR history.

With Gordon's Cup career now winding down, one cannot overestimate the impact that Gordon made on the sport.

Gordon will go down as one of the best drivers ever, and for good reason. In a time when NASCAR grew more competitive than ever, Gordon became a contender right away. He did not finish outside of the top nine in points from 1994 until 2005. He is fourth all-time with four titles, which he won in a seven year span, and he is third all-time with 92 wins. He won multiple races every season from 1994 until 2007 and has gone only three seasons without a victory. He is third all-time with 77 poles and has a record in winning a pole in 22 consecutive seasons (he has never gone a full-time season without a pole). And who knows what would have happened had NASCAR not instituted the Chase.

But what made Gordon important in NASCAR's history was far more than the prodigious amount of success he had on the track. When he entered the Cup Series, NASCAR was growing quickly but it still was struggling of the reputation of being a regional sport populated by good ol' boys. Gordon became NASCAR's first real pretty boy star and the first with legitimate mainstream crossover appeal. He is the only NASCAR driver to ever host Saturday Night Live and has filled-in for Regis Philbin on Live! With Regis & Kelly (before the Michael Strahan era). And how many drivers would have ever been mentioned in a Nelly track?

Gordon was front-and-center when NASCAR really exploded by the turn of the century but he also opened the door for more drivers outside of the South. He also led to owners looking for the "next Jeff Gordon," trying to find the next young hot-shot, changing from how in the past when young drivers would have to drive for smaller, lesser quality teams before getting the big chance.

Another way that Gordon left his mark in NASCAR was giving a shot for a driver whose career has surpassed his. Gordon urged team owner Rick Hendrick to give a then-Busch Series driver named Jimmie Johnson a shot in Cup and when Hendrick wanted Gordon to put his money where his mouth was, he did. He became a partner in the 48 car and helped to pave the way for Johnson's dominance over the past decade.

It seems like all but a certainty that Gordon will be replaced by the driver who looks like the next big NASCAR star, Chase Elliott. But no matter how many titles Elliott will win or anybody else, it seems unlikely that we will see a driver that will have left an impact like Gordon did on the sport of NASCAR.

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