In My Opinion

NASCAR: Jeff Gordon’s road back

2014 Coca Cola 600 | Charlotte Motor Speedway | Sunday, 6 p.m. (FOX)

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comMay 24, 2014 

In 1994, Jeff Gordon got his first victory at NASCAR’s highest level, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Gordon was 22 then, with a skimpy mustache and a startling amount of talent.

When he knew 20 years ago he was going to win the Coca-Cola 600, he bawled his way through the final 10 laps. He cried again in Victory Lane, celebrating with his family. He felt, he says now, the same way he did on the days when his two children were born.

Now Gordon is 42. The mustache – he grew it trying to look older and because Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty both had one – is long gone.

“It just looked ridiculous on a 22-year-old that could barely grow a mustache,” he said with a laugh in a recent interview.

There is a bit of gray in Gordon’s sideburns now, and he is much closer to the end of his driving career than the beginning. But he says he finally feels like his personal life and racing career are in perfect balance.

Gordon followed that first win in 1994 with 88 more and ranks third on NASCAR’s all-time win list, trailing only Petty and David Pearson. He is a certainty to make NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte once he retires, but he hasn’t won a series championship since 2001.

This, though, might be the year.

Gordon enters Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway leading the Sprint Cup standings and practically assured a place in the 2014 NASCAR playoffs.

The wildcard Sunday is Gordon’s problematic back. He had to sit out most of practice Saturday because of back spasms, and while the plan is still for him to drive 600 miles Sunday, reserve driver Regan Smith has been put on standby in case Gordon can’t.

“I think Jeff could be headed for a year like the ones he had in the late 1990s, when he wins five or six races,” said Rick Hendrick, who has employed Gordon as a driver since Gordon’s 1993 rookie season in Cup racing. “He’s driving like he did when he was 22 again.”

That has calmed even Gordon’s own retirement speculation. When will it come? Gordon doesn’t know.

“I’ve always said I want to run as long as I’m healthy, competitive and enjoying it,” Gordon said. “All that is happening this year.”

When Gordon was in his mid-30s, he often said he didn’t want to be driving when he was 40. That in part had to do with the chronic back pain that has plagued him for years and flared again in the past two days.

But Gordon will turn 43 in August.

Flexibility workouts have helped with the back issues. And being in contention every week has made racing fun again.

“Last year was a rough year for him and he had retiring on his mind,” said Ingrid Vandebosch, the former Belgian model who married Gordon in 2006. She and Gordon have a 6-year-old daughter, Ella, and a 3-year-old son, Leo. “But he has a whole new outlook on it now. He really is in a happy place in his life. He is a great father. He’s working out, he’s very healthy and he’s having a wonderful time racing.”

1994 vs. 2014

Gordon’s life is far different now than it was when he got that first win 20 years ago. Now he sets aside every Wednesday to eat sushi with Leo at Dean & DeLuca because that’s what Leo likes to do. Gordon keeps Legos at the racetrack so he can build with the kids during rain delays. On school days, he drops Ella off at 7:50 a.m. before going to work himself.

“My daughter is almost 7, and she lights up when I walk in a room,” Gordon said with obvious delight. “When I leave she says, ‘Where are you going? Don’t leave!’ A lot of times I wish I didn’t have to run off.”

Jeff and Ingrid get up at 6:30 a.m., because that’s when the kids get up. Although Gordon is a multi-millionaire who even boasts his own brand of wine (“The Jeff Gordon Collection”), in other ways, his life is not so different from that of other parents with young children. The family lives in good-natured fear of missing the kids’ 7:30 p.m. bedtime.

In May 1994, Gordon had a lot more free time. He was single but seriously dating a former Miss Winston model named Brooke Sealey who had attended UNC Charlotte. They would get married six months later.

Gordon was also on the verge of picking up his “Wonder Boy” nickname from Dale Earnhardt Sr. Gordon hated the nickname, although it also implied a level of respect from racing’s “Intimidator.”

Everything in Gordon’s life seemed golden two decades ago, and he was disliked by some longtime racers for it. Sterling Marlin, who won two Daytona 500s, told me in 1995: “There is some resentment of Jeff in the sport. A lot of other guys have had to struggle a lot more than he ever has – Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, myself. We’ve all been poor enough that we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Not Jeff.”

‘Man, who is that?’

Gordon wasn’t actually born rich. He grew up in California and Indiana, a racing prodigy whose career was guided by his stepfather, John Bickford.

Gordon missed two proms and most of his graduation to race. He never had a best friend his own age. By the time he took the mandatory driver’s education class in high school in Indiana, he had won more than 100 races.

Hendrick discovered Gordon in 1992, running all over the racetrack in a race in Atlanta. Gordon wasn’t Southern, like most stock-car racers were at the time, and he wasn’t well-known. Hendrick told the man standing next to him: “Watch that white car, because that guy is about to wreck himself. He’s out of control.”

Instead, Gordon completed several risky passes and took the lead in four laps. Hendrick marveled: “Man, who is that?’”

Hendrick soon signed Gordon, gave him a great car and pit crew and one of the best crew chiefs the sport has ever had in Ray Evernham.

“Jeff was going to change the sport,” Hendrick said. “I knew that.”

‘Racing was my life’

The Coca-Cola 600 in 1994 was Gordon’s 41st start at NASCAR’s highest level. Although he had come close numerous times and was the circuit’s rookie of the year in 1993, he had yet to drive his No. 24 Chevy to victory.

Evernham called for a risky two-tire pit stop in the final minutes. Wallace, who had had the dominant car for much of the day, took four tires in his last pit stop, which took nine seconds longer than Gordon’s did.

Gordon won.

The driver said through his tears: “This is the highest feeling in the world. ... If I only win one Winston Cup race in my career, I’d be happy.”

Gordon’s 89th Cup win came two weeks ago, in Kansas. Looking back now at that first victory, he said: “I was just somebody who was living the dream. I was on this incredible slope of success and just enjoying every moment. Not looking ahead, not looking back. Racing was my life, so it was all about that.”

Neighbors, teammates, rivals

Nobody’s life is really perfect. Even as Gordon won 40 races in a stunning four-year period in the late 1990s, his marriage was crumbling. Brooke filed for divorce in 2002 – by then the couple lived in Florida. In 2003, after court-ordered mediation, she was granted a divorce settlement of at least $15.3 million.

The failed marriage made Gordon seem more human. More likable, even. So did the fact that he was being overtaken as the face of NASCAR.

Jeff and Ingrid Gordon lived for several years in New York, where they originally met. But they moved back to Charlotte three years ago, looking for a good place to raise their children. And in the Gordons’ south Charlotte neighborhood, the main reason he has not won a series championship since 2001 lives across the street.

Jimmie and Chandra Johnson are the Gordons’ neighbors and close friends. The couples joke about digging a tunnel under the road so their children can get to each others’ houses more easily. Gordon and Johnson sometimes find themselves in the same carpool line at their kids’ school. The two are teammates at Hendrick Motorsports.

But Jimmie Johnson is also Gordon’s biggest rival. Since Gordon won his most recent championship, in 2001, Johnson has won an astonishing six. Gordon hasn’t won a championship since the Cup’s title sponsor changed, nor has he won one since NASCAR first adopted a playoff format in 2004.

“I’ve never really won a Sprint Cup,” Gordon told a group of fans at the NASCAR Hall of Fame recently. “I get called a four-time Sprint Cup champion all the time. ... But when I walk into the room at home where I have my trophies displayed, I see four Winston Cup trophies. So it’s been a long time.”

Is this partly because Gordon has lost some of his driving ability? The statistics would suggest that. Gordon acknowledges he’s not as aggressive a driver as he was in his mid-20s.

From 1995-2004, Gordon averaged 6.7 wins per year. From 2005 to the present, he has averaged 2.0.

Yet Gordon remains confident. I asked him recently who would win a race between the 42-year-old Gordon and the 22-year-old Gordon.

“Depends on what kind of race it was,” he said. “When you’re young, you’re more courageous and probably more aggressive. And when you get more experience, you learn how to harness that. So if it took more patience, today I’d beat that guy. I’d finesse him. But I will say that guy didn’t have much fear. He hadn’t hit anything yet.”

Lost and found

With Gordon having a championship-caliber season, the retirement question has faded. Eventually, Gordon will likely transition into TV – he’s such a natural in front of the camera that he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 2003.

Hendrick, who has Gordon under a lifetime contract, said he will let Gordon decide when it’s time to retire. Could he race until age 50?

“No, I don’t think so,” Hendrick said. “We won’t see 50. But we could see three more years. ... But he’s going to make that call.”

Said Vandebosch of her husband: “I think he kind of lost the place for awhile – the fine line between something just being a job and having fun while enjoying your job. But he has found it again.”

Twenty years later, Gordon looks back on his first win with fondness for the 22-year-old who knew little except how to go fast.

“Twenty years – it blows my mind,” Gordon said. “I still consider myself a kid, but I know that I’m not. But I certainly have a better idea of who I am and what I want out of life now than I did in 1994.

“I thought I had a lot of things figured out back then. But looking back on it, that wasn’t true at all. It has taken a lot of years of racing and being a dad and trying to figure out the right balance in life. It all seems to be coming together. But heck, like all of us, I just want some more time. For everything.”

Fowler: 704-358-5140; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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