What is, an unpopular opinion for $200, Alex?
It may be deemed blasphemous in some circles, but I’m here to tell you that Jeff Gordon is NASCAR’s Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan is saying goodbye on Sunday after 23 years of being at the pinnacle of his sport.
Yes, I know the comparisons have long been between Dale Earnhardt and Michael Jordan, but I’m going to argue that Dale Earnhardt was more of a Magic Johnson, paving the way for Michael Jordan, err, Jeff Gordon.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird catapulted the NBA to the forefront of American sports in the 80s. Their rivalry, their flair, their skill, and their professionalism put the NBA on the map in a way it had never before been. Michael Jordan took the NBA from there and elevated it to another stratosphere. Jordan took the game global.
Much the same story occurred with NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt put the sport on the map. He made it okay to be a NASCAR fan. He made it okay to admit you tuned in on Sundays to a bunch of cars driving in circles. His clashes with Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott in the 80s took the sport from the back pages of newspapers around the country to the front pages on Monday mornings.
It was Jeff Gordon however who made NASCAR a national mainstay and took the sport from the deep south and integrated it nationwide. While many will lament the loss of it’s southern roots, those in NASCAR certainly don’t lament the millions upon millions of dollars corporate America has invested into the sport, thanks in large part to Jeff Gordon.
Gordon, without the southern accent and with the GQ looks, took NASCAR to Wall Street. He took NASCAR to corporate America. And corporate America ate it up. Gordon helped eliminate (largely) the stereotypes associated with NASCAR. You didn’t have to sound like an uneducated hick to be a NASCAR superstar. You didn’t have to be from the south to be a superstar in NASCAR. And you no longer had to be “redneck” to be a fan.
Gordon became the first NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live. And whether you liked NASCAR, or sports in general, you knew who Jeff Gordon was. And if you did like NASCAR, Jeff Gordon was as polarizing as they come.
Gordon’s career has run full circle. When he entered the sport as a 21 year old phenom there was a ton of interest as to whether this hot shot from California, where in the words of legendary Harry Hogge , “You’re not really anything”, could cut it in the rough and tumble world of stock car racing. Once Gordon proved not only that he could cut it, but that he wasn’t afraid to push back against the best of the best and would be intimidated by no one, fans began to turn on the newcomer to the sport. Gordon quickly became public enemy number one, and it was a role he embraced. The more they booed, the more he was winning.
Gordon’s 1998 season of 13 wins and 28 top ten finishes in a single season (33 races) might possibly be the greatest single season in the modern era, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest single seasons turned in in American sports history. To compare, it ranks up there with the Bulls 70 win season, and, in many ways, surpasses it, thanks to his utter dominance that year and the distance between himself and his closest championship competitors, Mark Martin (7 wins and 26 top 10 finishes himself) and Dale Jarrett (3 wins 22 top 10s). Gordon won the championship by 364 points over Martin, who enjoyed a season that in all but rare instances would have easily been enough to walk home with a championship. As evidenced by the fact that Jarrett, who had a good year in his own right, finished a whopping 709 points behind Gordon.
To say people grew tired of him winning every other week is a very, very mild understatement.
But as his career cycled through into it’s twilight, guys like Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch (and more recently Joey Logano) have assumed Gordon’s place at the top of the “NASCAR’s Most Hated” list. As for Gordon, he might very well be the second most popular driver in the sport today. And it’s easily arguable that come Sunday at Homestead, he will be THE most popular driver on the track.
For years, Jeff Gordon wins were met with boos and with angry fans, upset that “Wonder Boy” had won yet another race. But when Gordon took the checkered flag at Martinsville a few weeks ago to secure his place in the championship round of NASCAR’s chase, his win was met with thunderous applause, and an ovation that seemed to last for several minutes. It was the kind of moment that reminded us why we watched sports. For a man that had won 93 career events, there was as much raw emotion and joy in this win as there was when he shed tears in victory lane at Charlotte in 21 and a half years earlier when he won his first career race.
I’m sure it was something new for the four time champion, and I’m sure it is something he will never forget. Well, unless he manages to top it this Sunday by taking what could well be the most popular championship in the sports history.
It is no coincidence that Jeff Gordon made his debut in the same race “The King”, Richard Petty, he of 200 wins and seven championships, made his final start. Never before has there been such an official changing of the guard.
But it wasn’t just the symbolism in Gordon’s career beginning where Petty’s ended. It was Gordon’s arrival on the scene and willingness, and ability, to go toe to toe with, and beat, the sports biggest stars from the get go.
In his first start at Daytona, Gordon out-dueled Bill Elliott in the Gatorade 125 mile qualifying race, and then finished 5th in the Daytona 500. The next year in the Busch Clash All-Star race, Gordon taught the Daytona master himself, Dale Earnhardt, a thing or two with a gutsy move around the Intimidator with just under two laps left to steal a victory.
It was perhaps that moment where Gordon and Earnhardt had their Magic and Michael moment. It was then that the world saw Gordon wasn’t going to back down from anyone, and he was here and here to take the throne atop American motorsports. And it was here where Dale Earnhardt realized this was going to happen, and there really wasn’t going to be anything he could do about it.
93 wins later, four championships, three Daytona 500 trophies, SIX Southern 500 wins, 3 Coca-Cola 600 and five Brickyard 400 triumphs later, Jeff Gordon gets the opportunity to do what few in sports are afforded the chance to do; leave on top. The odds are against him in Homestead, but don’t tell him that. They were against him when the Chase started, and yet, here he is, one victory away from a fifth championship to wrap up one of the greatest professional sports careers this country has ever seen.
It would be the perfect swan song and one of the greatest goodbyes in sports history. It would be the goodbye Michael Jordan should have had.