Jeff Gordon’s legacy of success transcends generations

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Jeff Gordon’s announcement that 2015 will be his final full season of Sprint Cup competition is momentous for two particular members of the MotorSportsTalk family.

As Gordon ascended to and then reigned at the top of NASCAR, young Chris Estrada and Tony DiZinno watched it unfold almost every weekend in their living rooms as kids.

Here, the two share their thoughts on Gordon’s accomplishments and contributions.

Chris Estrada

If I can pinpoint the moment where I became a NASCAR follower, it would be when Dale Earnhardt Sr. won the 1998 Daytona 500.

And because I was now a 12-year-old Earnhardt fan, I naturally followed the lead of many others that pulled for the black No. 3 and built up a healthy dislike for one Jeff Gordon and that rainbow-colored No. 24.

As fans, we all want our guy or girl to win. But barring that, if Earnhardt at least beat Gordon on the track that Sunday, I could go to school the next day with at least a little spring in my step.

Sixteen years later, I look back on it all and I can’t help but laugh at my silliness. Don’t bother asking me for an exact reason why I didn’t like Gordon because through the sea of time, I can’t really fish one out and hand it to you.

Oh, I could give you some dumb line about how I thought he was a polished pretty boy that wasn’t as “tough” as Earnhardt and his contemporaries. But we all know that’s not true.

As we grow older, we all gain perspective. I now realize that the Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry – one that came to a heart-breaking end with Earnhardt’s death at the 2001 Daytona 500 – helped keep me riveted to NASCAR at an age where I could have easily gotten bored with it and decide to chase some other hot trend back then.

But NASCAR left me spellbound every weekend. And one of the main reasons for that was Gordon, my one-time object of animus that has become, in my opinion, one of NASCAR’s most important figures ever.

Earnhardt was the bridge between NASCAR’s two worlds – the Southern, blue-collar world where it began and the bigger, mainstream world it now occupies. But in the latter world, Gordon has helped ensure that NASCAR remains a success.

When Joe Schmoe on the street thinks of NASCAR, Jeff Gordon pops into his head – sometimes first, sometimes second behind Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., or Danica Patrick. Still, Gordon is there. His success on and off the track has ensured his presence.

With all of that said, I’m glad that we got one more reminder of how special he is behind the wheel of a race car in his renaissance season last year.

I only had relatively faint memories of Gordon’s glory run in the 1990s and early 2000s, so to see him constantly be a threat throughout the 2014 campaign was a revelation: “So this was what he was like.”

After closing the 2013 Chase strong, we knew 2014 could be a really good year for him – and boy, was it ever. Even with that whole Brad Keselowski thing at Texas.

But as 2014 progressed, I sometimes wondered just how much longer Gordon would be competing. The nagging back issues were one thing, but more important was that his legacy was secure and he would likely want to spend more time with the lovely family that he’s raised.

Surely – soon, I figured – he would look around, take all of those things into account, and say, ‘You know what? I’m good.’

That day has come. This morning, Gordon announced that the 2015 season will be the end of his full-time run in Sprint Cup.

His final lap has the potential to become the stuff of legend. Now a revered elder statesman in the garage and a massive fan favorite, Gordon will be the object of adulation at every stop on the Sprint Cup circuit.

But even more important, Gordon has reclaimed his competitive edge over the last couple of seasons. He, crew chief Alan Gustafson, and the 24 camp are a force to be reckoned with.

And after coming up just one point shy of the opportunity to compete for his fifth Cup title last year, Gordon will be more motivated than ever before to go out on top.

There’s no doubt that many within NASCAR Nation would see such an accomplishment as well-deserved.

Tony DiZinno

There’s something special about the first entity you truly recognize as a kid growing up.

And while yes, I was exposed to both NASCAR and open-wheel racing as in the 1990s, there were of course two standouts from the then-NASCAR Winston Cup Series: Dale Earnhardt in the black, No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet and Jeff Gordon, the “rainbow warrior” in the multicolored No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.

In my terms – and with only the Star Wars movies as a reference point – Gordon was the hero and Earnhardt the villain. Earnhardt’s car was black, after all.

That was the initial reference point for me.

And then, as I started following in the mid-1990s, that was also when the then-mustachioed wonder had evolved into Jeff Gordon, the man that was winning dozens of races left and right as the first truly young star NASCAR had seen in generations.

The 1997 Daytona 500 stands out, where Gordon led the famous Hendrick Motorsports 1-2-3 as the kickoff to his second championship. The single year of domination the following season in 1998 came next. Another Daytona 500 win, where Gordon smacked the roof of the car after winning in 1999, further added to the legend of the then-27-year-old.

After 2001, when he won the championship in a year when Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson made their debuts, it seemed as though Gordon’s “Drive for Five” was unstoppable.

But that season was of course, the biggest turning point in my formative NASCAR fandom.

Earnhardt died in the Daytona 500, in the single biggest racing tragedy since Ayrton Senna’s passing in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

Gordon, still shy of 30 until later that year, was moving up the hierarchy in terms of his status in the NASCAR garage, even if he wasn’t the oldest driver on the grid compared to a Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett or Bill Elliott for instance.

He was the benchmark for all others to measure themselves against, and his first true rival was gone.

The torch began to pass that year. Harvick, of course, edged him in Atlanta in that famous finish. Tony Stewart became a regular winner. Kurt Busch was a full-time rookie.

Suddenly, Gordon had a new wave of talent to contend with – and though I never thought at the time he’d go 13 or 14 years without another title, that is what’s happened.

It’s not that he’s lost it. Gordon could have won at least two or three more titles in the interim. As he aged, and encountered younger teammates such as Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, he didn’t lose his drive – even if the elusive “drive for five” remained.

The 2004, 2007, 2009 and most recently 2014 seasons showcased the talent Gordon still has, as NASCAR has evolved through different car specs, marketing partners and series sponsors. And who could forget his being added as the 13th Chase driver, on Friday the 13th, in 2013?

Gordon has been the constant. Yet now, at the conclusion of the 2015 Sprint Cup season, that will end.

But unlike where Earnhardt’s end was abrupt and painful, Gordon will at least have the honor – and a worthy one a la Derek Jeter this past MLB season – of having a true final season tour throughout the 2015 campaign.

He may not have Richard Petty or Earnhardt’s number of titles, but he will get the proper, yearlong sendoff he deserves.

And he made the call on his own terms.