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Gordon Leaving Behind a Lasting Barrier Breaking Legacy on NASCAR

Gordon Leaving Behind a Lasting Barrier Breaking Legacy on NASCAR

by January 23, 2015 0 comments

Photo Credit: ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

After what will be 23 years of competing full-time at the premier level of stock car racing on the national level, four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon has declared that he is going to step away from competing in the sport full-time after 2015.

What a ride it has been over those two decades.

Whether you supported him or were against him throughout his career whether it be during his most recent runs following his last title in 2001 or during the ‘rainbow warrior’ era, there’s several things that you can’t deny – the man was an icon, a legend in his own time, and a man who helped break barriers for the future of the sport with his success.

Not to mention the fact he was a very polarizing figure – not due to his personality, but due to the fact that he was damn good at what he did.

The late Dale Earnhardt provided Gordon – nicknamed ‘Wonder Boy’ by Earnhardt – some wise words when the young driver from Vallejo, California, was finding himself being booed by spectators in the stands, “If they’re booing you, they know you’re winning.”

And win was just what Gordon did, and he did it well with 92 victories (and counting) spanning across his Cup career with impressive tallies of 10, 10, and 13 wins earned respectively in 1996, 1997, and 1998.

Booed for being successful – if you’re going to be booed at all, it minds as well be for that.

Similar to Earnhardt’s overall reception from fans at the track in his final years (save his post-1999 Bristol “rattle his cage” incident), Gordon’s reception from fans in recent years has  changed from that of a ‘villain’ to that of a respected veteran of the grid.

Gordon’s lasting legacy in the Sprint Cup Series will not be reserved just to the fact that he was successful behind the wheel of a stock car, he will also be remembered as bridging the gap between two distinct eras in the history of the sport.

Gordon, now 43, hit the Sprint Cup scene at the age of 20 in a race that was notable as being the end of the road for NASCAR legend Richard Petty’s driving career. As one legend of the sport walked away from the sport as a driver, a legend-to-be stepped in.

The late-80s in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series were dominated by drivers from the midwest, southern, and southeastern regions of the country as drivers such as Earnhardt from Kannapolis, North Carolina, Darrell Waltrip from Owensboro, Kentucky, Bill Elliott out of Dawsonville, Georgia, and Rusty Wallace from Arnold, Missouri, were racking up wins and claiming championships.

The national popularity was primarily reserved to the aforementioned regions during the late-80s/early-90s, but as soon as ‘The California Kid’ hit the scene, the national popularity of the sport became much more widespread.

Gordon’s dominance helped widen the popularity of the sport and helped open the door for more drivers from west of the Mississippi River to come and compete in the highest touring division in NASCAR.

For instance, in 1991, the year before Gordon made his first Sprint Cup start, exactly a quarter of the drivers that competed in every single race that season came from west of the Mississippi.

Flash forward to 2014, over half of the drivers that completed the full season call towns west from the Mississippi home with eight drivers other than Gordon coming from the state of California.

While Petty and Earnhardt will go down in history as the two best drivers of the sport in terms of championships won (although Johnson may have something to say about that soon), perhaps no driver’s successes impacted the sport as greatly as Gordon’s did.

Simply put, Gordon was a game changer whose presence on the Sprint Cup grid will sorely be missed following the 2015 season.

Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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