2015 NASCAR Daytona 500

By Michael Vega - Boston Globe

Growing up in Northern California, Jeff Gordon didn’t have a Jeff Gordon to look up to when he started racing open-wheeled sprint cars on the dirt track circuits near his home in Vallejo.

Quite the contrary, Gordon’s racing heroes were named A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser. They were older and established drivers who cemented their place in Gordon’s heart by winning the Indianapolis 500.

“What drew me to those legends and those guys and their legacy was how many races they won,’’ Gordon said. “I love the fact that those guys won four Indianapolis 500s, and championships, and that they were great racecar drivers.’’

As Gordon prepares to embark on his final season in the Sprint Cup Series, the 43-year-old driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has certainly been respected and recognized as a great performer who won 92 races and four NASCAR championships, but none in the Chase playoff format.

When perspective finally offers a broader measure of Gordon’s legacy, fans will likely remember him for the impact he had in helping grow the sport beyond its Southeastern roots. For putting a fresh face on the regionalized sport and bringing it into the mainstream. And, most important, for causing a shift in the way owners evaluated and searched for the next wave of stars.

Call it the Jeff Gordon Effect.

Fittingly, Gordon will be replaced by Chase Elliott, the 19-year-old son of former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott. Chase was born the same year Gordon won the first of his NASCAR titles in 1995. He will be two years younger than Gordon was when he makes his debut next season.

These days, Jeff Gordon is a seasoned veteran who has paved the way for many young drivers. His early success (above) on the circuit was a key factor.

These days, Jeff Gordon is a seasoned veteran who has paved the way for many young drivers. His early success (above) on the circuit was a key factor.

“I think the fans will remember Jeff as that young guy who came into a sport and changed the sport,’’ said car owner Rick Hendrick, who discovered Gordon by happenstance in 1992 during a Busch Grand National race in Atlanta. Hendrick hung by the fence watching Gordon tear around the corners sideways and waiting for the driver to “bust his ,’’ he said.

Hendrick watched and waited, coming away impressed by Gordon’s car control, a skill he honed on dirt tracks in Northern California. Two days later, Hendrick signed Gordon.

“Until he showed up and got in a Cup car at a young age, no one had ever done that,’’ Hendrick said. “Then to go out and win the championship in his third year was amazing. Then to be so competitive and dominate the sport there, and then in this past year what he was able to do leading the points and be such a factor in the Chase. Truly, he’s been one of the greatest drivers that’s ever been in the sport. But a guy who’s done so much to help other people. I mean, how many of the drivers that are here today would never have had the opportunity if Jeff Gordon didn’t blaze a trail at such a young age from a different series?’’

Count Kyle Busch among current Sprint Cup stars who pointed to Gordon as an inspiration.

Busch, 29, driver of the No. 18 Toyota, was Gordon’s teammate at Hendrick from 2003-07. Busch’s former crew chief, Alan Gustafson, now serves Gordon in that capacity.

“I think Jeff was obviously a huge inspiration to me being a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver,’’ Busch said. “I mean, he was kind of the guy I looked at and wanted to model myself after in getting to the Sprint Cup Series.’’

Gordon was also responsible for bringing aboard Jimmie Johnson as the driver of the No. 48, a team formed through a partnership between Gordon and Hendrick. It was a fortuitous move, as Johnson went on to win six Sprint Cup titles.

“He really was instrumental, in my opinion, in helping car owners and sponsors realize that there are drivers far and wide who can come in and be competitive,’’ Johnson said. “He opened the door for Stewart, and Stewart opened the door further for myself and Kasey Kahne.

“Now we have more drivers from the state of California than any other state,’’ Johnson said, noting how reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick hails from Bakersfield. “So it’s wild to think in NASCAR that that’s the case, and I think Jeff is responsible for that trend happening.’’

When Gordon came along, Johnson noted, “we needed a clean-cut, well-spoken person to kind of carry the sport . Jeff was that guy. His dominance helped our sport.’’

But Gordon’s early success and instant stardom did not equate to instance acceptance among his peers. In fact, the young driver was forced to swim against the tide of NASCAR’s normal convention and ran counter to the sport’s old guard who chafed at his overnight success because it seemed he had not paid his dues, as they had, to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

“When I came in, I always felt like I was the outsider,’’ Gordon said. “That I wasn’t accepted and that I had to do things my way, but also to try and earn that respect.’’

That respect, though, was grudgingly earned. It wasn’t until Gordon stacked win upon win and championship upon championship that the establishment recognized Gordon’s greatness.

“Honestly, and I tell Jimmie this all the time..."

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