NASCAR’s growth in 1990s, Chase debut stand out most to Jeff Gordon

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From his 1992 Sprint Cup debut onward, Jeff Gordon has both been a witness to and has played a role in the evolution of NASCAR.

But as the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion looks ahead to his final full season at the top level of the sport, two particular moments from that evolution stand out to him for different reasons.

Thanks to his early run of championships on the track and youthful personality, Gordon became the face of NASCAR’s push beyond its Southern roots in the 1990s.

New races emerged in major markets such as Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Dallas/Fort Worth, Las Vegas, and Miami. As interest grew across the country, the sport eventually scored a $2 billion-plus TV contract from NBC, Fox, and the Turner networks for the 2001-2006 seasons (NBC and Fox will broadcast NASCAR for the next 10 years starting with this season).

NASCAR became white-hot, and Gordon helped get it there.

“I think that the greatest thing I saw was in those mid to late 90’s, the growth of the sport, and how going to Indianapolis, and going to Texas, and moving all over the country and then packaging the TV broadcasting partners along with that,” he recalled today.

“During that same time,  the fans and their avidness for the sport was growing further and further. The core was still the Southeast, but you started seeing it be so recognizable beyond that and throughout the U.S. I know it seemed like just a lot of things were coming together at one time through those mid to late 90’s.

“So it was fun to be a part of that and an incredible growth – just going to the racetrack and every weekend, the grandstands were filled. They were putting new grandstands in, and they’d fill those. They’d put more grandstands in and they’d fill those. So it was very, very cool.”

But not every change within NASCAR was to Gordon’s liking.

Today, he singled out the 2004 debut of the Chase format, which has since gone under multiple revamps over the last decade to become its current, elimination-style version.

Gordon recalled sitting on a dock in Key West, Florida with NASCAR Chairman Brian France when France told him that the Chase was coming.

“I told him that was not a very good idea,” Gordon said.

Over time, however, Gordon says he has come to love the Chase, particularly after he’s been able to do so well in the 2013 and 2014 editions.

Still, he’s frustrated that he hasn’t yet been able to win a Cup title in the Chase era. Now he has just one more opportunity to solve that problem.

“It really bums me out I haven’t won one under this format,” Gordon said. “We’ve been close, but haven’t won it, and I’m using that as motivation in this final season to run for the championship and to go out there and get it done.

“I thought we had a chance to do it last year, and, boy, I would love to get into that same position that we were in this past year and do that again this year with running for the championship at Homestead.”

NBCSN will present ‘Race and Sports in America: Conversations’ Monday

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With motor racing reckoning with its own issues of diversity and equality, “Race and Sports in America: Conversations” will tackle the topics of social justice with several athletes. The show will air at 8 p.m. ET Monday, July 13 on NBCSN, Golf Channel, Olympic channel and on regional sports networks.

The roundtable discussions will be hosted by Damon Hack and feature Charles Barkley, Steph Curry, Jimmy Rollins and Ozzie Smith in one segment. The other segment will include Kyle Rudolph, Anthony Lynn, Troy Mullins and James Blake.

Race has been a major topic in motorsports this year.

NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at its race after lobbying by Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the premier Cup Series. In Formula One, six-time series champion Lewis Hamilton has joined Black Lives Matter marches in London and also formed a panel on diversity. The lone Black driver in F1 also led 14 of 20 drivers taking a knee before the season opener in Austria.