Jeff Gordon: ‘Wonder Boy’ no more

Published 7:06 pm Saturday, January 24, 2015

Back when I was a dues-paying member of the National Motorsports Press Association, I always loved attending the annual kickoffs to the upcoming NASCAR racing seasons, usually held at one of the premier hotels or convention centers in Charlotte.

We were there for the food and frivolity as much as meeting the movers and shakers of the sports and getting ourselves psyched up for the upcoming February-to-October run (yes, kids, there was a time when the stock-car racing season ended before the first snowfall!).

During the 1991 confab we gathered to meet and interview the drivers on NASCAR’s second division, then known as Busch Grand National.  One of those fresh young faces attending was a driver for Bill Davis Racing out of California by way of Indiana that folks were touting named Gordon, crewed by some guy named Evernham.

Well, guess who ended up winning the Grand National championship that year!?!

Now comes my favorite part: the rest, as they say, is history.

Gordon moved up to then-Winston Cup a couple of years later, left Davis Racing for some other fella named Hendrick, picked up a major sponsor and a colorful car paint scheme in Dupont, got nicknamed “Wonder Boy” by some other fella by the name of Earnhardt, had a crew called the “Rainbow Warriors”, went on to win a qualifying Daytona 500 race, would start the big-race third in the field, and by November danged if he hadn’t picked up another Rookie of the Year trophy.

Two years later he won the first of his four Cup championships and along the way changed the paradigm of stock car racing: a young guy could succeed without the usual arrogance, and he didn’t have to be born south of the Mason-Dixon line.

I thought back on all that and pondered it last night after I heard Gordon’s announcement that 2015 will be his last season racing full-time at the Sprint Cup level.

C’mon, man, you’re still a kid!

Leading up to the Daytona 500 and probably at every racing venue all season, there will be stories about him.  Stories that tell you how normal and ordinary he is, that however rich and famous he became, he never turned into a jerk, he never treated people like trash, he never stopped being the kind of guy who might suddenly break into song, which he did the time he hosted “Saturday Night Live”.

And that might prove to be his greatest legacy.

At the exact time NASCAR needed a star to take the sport out of the Southeast and into the world at large, Gordon appeared. He presented himself and NASCAR to the masses, and NASCAR is immeasurably better for it.

Wonder Boy made every appearance, smiled through every Pepsi commercial, and seemed to charm every interviewer.

But Jeff knew Father Time was creeping up on him. He hasn’t won a championship since 2001. And while he was a contender last season, he’s 43, got two young kids and has suffered through years of recurring back pain. Gordon always said he didn’t want to hang around too long, and now he gets to go out recognized as a winner, which in itself is no small feat.

It also needs mentioning that Gordon is third on the all-time wins list, and among the top seven: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, and Earnhardt, none voluntarily retired while still in his prime.

Too often in sports, and in the world in general, our standards have dropped so low and our desire to turn people into heroes is so big that nowadays we praise an athlete for anything. Face it, we’ve turned the absence of bad behavior into the presence of good behavior; praising an athlete for sitting through a press conference and answering questions, for signing autographs as if that were a religious calling.

Well, that’s what Jeff Gordon does. So let’s praise someone who treats people right, gets to go out on his terms, and deserves to be recognized for it.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at or 252-332-7211.