By Kenny Bruce -

If not for a few chance opportunities, Jeff Gordon as we know him would not have existed.

Jeff Gordon’s familiar No. 24 Chevrolet will roll off from the 14th spot when Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 gets underway at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It will be his 21st start in the 600, a race he has won three times. His first victory in the Cup series, in fact, came on the 1.5-mile track in 1994.

A four-time Cup champion, Gordon made his 700th career start just two weeks ago. He has 87 career wins, more than any other active driver. His 300 top-five finishes are fourth highest in the history of the series.

We know who Jeff Gordon is and we know what he’s accomplished. What some might not know is how the pieces fell into place to launch one of the sport’s most successful driving careers.

If not for a sponsorship appearance, Gordon’s NASCAR career might have unfolded in an entirely different manner.

If not for a friendship forged while running sprint cars, Gordon’s meteoric rise might have taken an entirely different route.

But the friendship was struck, and the sponsorship commitment was kept, and the two incidents that took place approximately four years apart came together to begin another surprising chapter in the NASCAR record book.

“I’d never seen a car that out of control,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I thought he was going to crash.”

En route to a sponsor appearance, Hendrick was making his way out of the infield at Atlanta Motor Speedway when he paused to watch the closing action of the 1992 Atlanta 300.

His two Cup teams were already qualified for the next day’s Motorcraft Quality Parts 500 at Atlanta. Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 5 Tide Chevrolet, had finished second in points to Dale Earnhardt the previous season. But a slow start found Rudd 23rd in the standings. He would start 24th in Sunday’s Cup race.

Ken Schrader fared better in qualifying, putting his No. 25 Kodiak Chevrolet No. 5 on the grid. After a top-10 points finish the previous year, he was 15th overall heading into the Atlanta event.

A meet-and-greet awaited, but Hendrick was intrigued by what he saw as he made his way up to the suites located above the race track.

“The only way to get to the suites was to walk under the track … I get on the other side of the track, right at the fence and this car comes by and goes into the corner and smoke is rolling off the tires,” Hendrick said. “I stopped and said, ‘this guy is going to crash, watch this.’ He comes back around and takes the lead.”

Jeff Gordon, the pole sitter, had just....

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