When NASCAR star Jeff Gordon was a youngster laying out the groundwork for his racing life, the ultimate goal wasn’t stock car racing; instead, the young California native turned Hoosier faithful had his heart set on a World of Outlaws dirt track career. Gordon announced the revelation to former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a recent installment of his podcast, Dale Jr. Download.
"I wasn’t thinking NASCAR at all,” Gordon said. "Actually, I was thinking World of Outlaws sprint cars. I wanted to be a World of Outlaw sprint car driver. My heroes were Steve Kinser and Doug Wolfgang. I got to race with those guys when I was like 14, and it was insane.”
NASCAR wasn’t even Gordon’s second choice for a big-time destination. After a sprint car racing deal didn’t work out and Gordon shifted his focus to asphalt, aspirations changed from World of Outlaws to IndyCar. With newer open-wheel visions, Gordon took the USAC Midget route. He got no love for IndyCar, though, as he didn’t have an abundance of funding behind him.
"I really wasn’t going to be a NASCAR driver,” Gordon said." It just happened."
Larry Nuber, who was part of the Thursday Night Thunder broadcasts of USAC Midget racing on ESPN, suggested NASCAR to Gordon, and the rest is history.
A test in a stock car caught the attention of team owner Bill Davis and led to a NASCAR Busch Series debut at North Carolina Speedway in 1990. He finished 39th, second-to-last, in that first race, but Davis kept him around for two full-time seasons in the series.
Gordon won three of 31 races in his second full Busch Series season and ended the 1992 campaign fourth in the standings. He then bid farewell to Bill Davis Racing and, controversially, Ford with a move to Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports ahead of 1993. One era in NASCAR ended and another began in the final race of the 1992 season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as Richard Petty’s final race was Gordon’s first in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
The NASCAR route Gordon’s racing career took may have been a last resort, of sorts, but it paid off in a big way. Gordon has four NASCAR premier series championships, fourth on the all-time list behind seven-time champions Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Jimmie Johnson. He’s even higher up on the all-time race wins list—third—with 93, behind Petty and David Pearson. These stats led to the decisions to induct Gordon into both the NASCAR Hall of Fame and National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in early 2019.
Also worth mentioning — although Gordon’s career didn’t include IndyCar, he did get to race at Indianapolis and quite successfully. He was the winner of the inaugural Brickyard 400 NASCAR Cup Series race there in 1994 and leads the way in all-time Brickyard 400 wins with five.