Jeff Gordon was destined to be a villain.
When his NASCAR career started in the early 90s, he was basically the Jean Girard to an entire series full of Ricky Bobbies; a California kid, who moved to the backyard of open-wheel racing's Holyland, and dominated the USAC and midget circuits.
At the time of his breakthrough with Hendrick Motorsports, the sport was dominated by the South. Dale Earnhardt was the class of the field, winning four of the first five Winston Cup Championships of the 1990s, and almost making everyone forget that Richard Petty was bowing out of the sport.
Then this kid started to run roughshod through the series. Gordon won 49 races from 1992 to 1999, and three championships. Between 1995 and 1998, he won 40 times, and was 37 points away in '96 from winning four consecutive titles, which would have been a first in the decades long history of NASCAR.
He was brash, even though his longtime crew chief Ray Evernham would tell you otherwise. He had no trouble putting on a bump and run, or ducking onto the apron to pass you and claim another victory (I'll still never forgive him for taking the 1999 Daytona 500 away from Rusty). Though his strategies were nothing new to the sport, especially since Dale had made them such common practice throughout his career, there was something otherworldly about his actions at the time.
Jeff Gordon was pretty. He used hair products and was clean shaven (well most of the time). His most famous paint scheme had a rainbow sprawled across the hood of his Monte Carlo, and his team became affectionately known as "The Rainbow Warriors." Gordon was extremely marketable, making use of a Hollywood persona by appearing in movies and TV shows. This was uncharted territory for the sport so closely lumped with the idea of unsophisticated goons and good ole boys.
It's a bit difficult to articulate the impact one guy can have on a sport with the scale of NASCAR, but Jeff Gordon could be credited with almost single-handedly expanding the series from a predominantly southeastern industry, to a nationwide attraction with billion dollar revenue.
Gordon became a sort of gatekeeper for the left coast talent breaking into top flight. Like Bill Walsh's influence on pro football and the rising popularity of the West Coast offense, Gordon made it possible for kids from California, Nevada, and Washington State to pursue successful careers in NASCAR. He also made the massive race teams in the business start scouting like the nation's Big 4. Since Gordon's career began, his shadow can be seen hovering over some of the most recent champions in the sport. Jimmie Johnson, the six-time Sprint Cup Series champ and California native, has been teammates with Gordon since his rookie year, and his #48 is actually co-owned by Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon.
Kevin Harvick, NSCS's defending champion, is from Bakersfield. The Busch Brothers, Kurt and Kyle, are Vegas natives. And, the sport's most polarizing figure, Tony Stewart, honed his skills in open-wheel racing, just like Gordon, and made waves the second he got a seat from Joe Gibbs the late-90s.
There are tracks spread across the nation now. Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, is just a bit east of Los Angeles. Texas, Las Vegas, and Phoenix all host massively popular races; Las Vegas even hosts the end of year awards ceremony following the end of each season.
While the growth of ad revenue and Fortune 500 sponsors can largely be attributed to the expansion of NASCAR in some regions, the usher of these superlatives can very well be credited to Jeff Gordon.
Last week when Gordon announced that 2015 would be his last full-time season behind the wheel of the #24, something came over me. I grew up a fan of the sport, with some of my earliest memories being that of sitting in front of the TV with my dad every Sunday with my die cast cars and my Rusty Wallace hat on. We respected and feared guys like Dale Sr. and Terry Labonte, but we lamented damn near everything Jeff Gordon did. He was a punk, and a detriment to our favorite sport.
Now, he's an elder statesman, even though he's still on the right side of his 40s. He's grayed, and fought, and become an incredibly respected part of the garage. It's odd thinking of this upcoming season being the last we may ever see of Jeff Gordon being behind the wheel of a competitive machine.
Jeff Gordon was destined to be a villain. The guy that everybody loved to hate, has somehow morphed into the guy everyone (or, me and my father, at least) hate to love. He became the ambassador to the rest of the country, and to the racing world, to introduce stock car racing and the beer drinking redneck to the masses.
It may pain some NASCAR purists to admit this, or to see me write this down, but Jeff Gordon is the most important figure in the sport's history, outside of someone with the last name France.