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In my career I have seen them all
First off, I want to congratulate Jeff Gordon. By winning at Pocono Raceway Sunday, he tied me and Bobby Allison with 84 NASCAR Sprint Cup wins. That is a really big deal when you consider that in the entire history of NASCAR, only five drivers have reached 84 wins. Naturally Richard Petty is first with 200 wins, then David Pearson with 105 and then the three of us.
Sunday was a moment that everyone needed to reflect back on Jeff’s career. He is a four-time champion in our sport and is now tied for third on NASCAR’s all-time win list. For me, having been in NASCAR pretty much all my life, it made me reflect on the other great drivers I have watched and raced against to put into some kind of perspective just how monumental a feat that Jeff has accomplished.
Growing up in Owensboro, Ky., I wanted to be just like A. J. Foyt. I wanted to be an open-wheeler just like him. I wanted to have a red bandana and red driving gloves just like him. He could wheel a Sprint car like no one I had ever seen. So A.J. was someone I idolized.
As I moved south and my career headed toward stock cars, I got to witness even more amazing drivers. I never got to drive with the likes of Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly or any of the other greats of that era.
When I got to start my career in NASCAR, the best in the sport was Petty. He was the king of the sport, well actually he was still building his kingdom when I started in the sport. There was Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. David Pearson, the Silver Fox, was my all-time favorite driver. When I came into the sport, I was viewed as an outsider and there weren’t a lot of people that friendly or kind to me.
David Pearson was, though. He and Bobby Issac were the two guys that really embraced me, answered the 10,000 questions I asked and really helped me a lot. All these decades later I still appreciate their kindness to me. Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker were always good friends to me.
Then came Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace. The five of us were basically in an era of our own. We raced each other hard. We might not have always gotten along with each other, but we all respected each other. I also appreciate the irony of 1992 at Atlanta, Ga.
Now you might not remember, but Atlanta used to be our last race of the season. Well in November of 1992, The King, Petty was retiring and Atlanta was his last race. Guess who’s first NASCAR Cup race it was on that very same day? Some kid, some young phenom named Jeff Gordon.
I tell this story a lot about Jeff because it always makes me laugh. Car owner Rick Hendrick is one of my very best friends. I even drove for him at one point of my career. So when Jeff first started in the sport he was making a lot of rookie mistakes as rookies are prone to do and wrecking himself and others almost weekly.
So after a few races early in 1993, Rick calls me and asks me what I think of his new driver. While it was obvious the kid had some talent, I still said to Rick, “I don’t know if the kid will every make it.”
Jeff was wild and reckless, but in the back of my mind I knew if they could ever harness all that talent, then Jeff would be successful.
Obviously he was able to and the rest, as they say, is history. The pairing of Jeff Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham will go down in NASCAR history as one of the greatest driver/crew chief combos our sport ever witnessed. They made a perfect pair, a lot like Jeff Hammond and I did.
Jeff and Ray set the NASCAR world on fire. It was a pleasure to watch Jeff mature through all the obstacles he faced. People used to boo him like crazy. He never got the full appreciation he deserved, at the time, for what he did behind the wheel of that No. 24 car. Trust me on this, I had walked that same path as Jeff, so I knew exactly what he was going through and I felt sorry for him.
After I retired, I have been in the NASCAR on FOX TV booth for the last 11 years and that has even heightened my appreciation for Jeff. These years up in the booth watching him has solidified for me that Jeff Gordon is one of the all-time greatest drivers to ever sit behind the wheel of a stock car.
The man is smart. He is smooth. He also has an appreciation for what it takes to run a 500-mile race.
Then on the heels of Jeff, comes another Hendrick Motorsports driver, Jimmie Johnson. There is another classic example of a driver/crew chief pairing rewriting the NASCAR record books. Jimmie and crew chief Chad Knaus really have accomplished so much in a relatively short period of time and the sky is the limit in my book of what they still may do together.
We all know the old cliché about hindsight being 20/20 and I am a classic example of that. Sometime during the 1990 season, I made the decision I wanted to leave Hendrick Motorsports and start my own team. Our sport was just beginning to go through an era of owner/drivers again and I wanted to captain my own ship.
I’ll never forget what Rick Hendrick said to me when I met to tell him my decision. He looked me in the eye and said, “DW, I’ll support and help you in anything you decide to do, but if you stay here, I’ll get you to 100 wins and maybe another championship or two.”
I didn’t listen. I so badly wanted to be the man who called all the shots. That’s where Jeff Gordon is smarter than I am. Jeff has said many times that it really didn’t matter to him who his crew chief was, as long as Rick Hendrick was his car owner. Now with four championships under his belt, and tied for third with Bobby and I on the NASCAR all-time win list, Jeff is proving that statement out to everyone.
Just think about the points system changes, all the car changes, all the rule changes and through it all, Jeff Gordon just keeps on winning. Sunday at Pocono, getting his 84th win was simply impressive to me. Let’s face it, the Kid isn’t a kid anymore. He’s almost 40 years old, is married and has kids.
He made a statement that meant a lot to me because again, I lived in that moment too. He said he wanted his kids to see their dad be successful as a race-car driver so that when his kids grow up they will remember how he did it.
I lived that very same dream. My Jessica and my Sarah came late in my career, but their dad still had some days in the sun on the racetrack left that they got to witness. I am very thankful for that.
So Tuesday is voting day by the NASCAR Hall of Fame panel. I will be sitting in the audience and let the chips fall where they may. My accomplishments behind the wheel are for others to judge now. I just know that someday I will again be sitting in the audience when they announce Jeff Gordon as the newest member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Jeff is a great driver. He is one of the few that has reached the ultimate height in our sport of not only winning the NASCAR championship, but doing it multiple times. More importantly, Jeff is an even better person. He is a great dad, a great husband and he is a great friend of mine. I am so proud of him.
I have seen all 84 of Jeff’s wins. Rick Hendrick says he can win 100 races and seven championships. Jeff, go get it!
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