Woody Cain is a journalist who has covered motorsports for radio, television, and print for over two decades. He is also host of the live call-in TV program Let's Talk Racing, and play-by-play announcer for the televised Around the Track racing productions and specials. He has been a general reporter and editor for daily, weekly, and monthly publications, including University City Magazine, as well as sports director at WEGO-AM and WABZ-FM. He lives in Concord, North Carolina.
Jeff Gordon: Running Up Frontby Woody Cain
Before Jeff Gordon's spectacular debut in 1993, conventional wisdom said stock-car drivers needed years of track time before they could compete -- much less win -- at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series level. The better ones had to slowly progress through the ranks. The best of that group had the equally tough task of convincing someone to give them a shot at the big time.
Then came Jeff Gordon. By the time he was 20, Gordon had twice been named to the All-American Team by the American Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. His resume also includes championships in go-karts, Midget, and Sprint cars, and a Rookie-of-the-Year title in the NASCAR Busch Series. Despite his early titles, many NASCAR fans had never heard of him and they scoffed at his chances to excel at stock-car racing when he entered the field in 1991. Maybe that's why his success rate in NASCAR's top series nearly defies belief: Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1993, four-time Winston Cup championship winner, and Driver of the Year in 1997 and 1998 are among his honors. If Gordon maintains his record-breaking pace and wins four more titles in the next eight seasons, he'll get a record eighth championship in 2010 with his 40th birthday still a season away.
Gordon didn't win a single race as a rookie in 1993, the year that he signed with Hendrick Motorsports. But his emergence in NASCAR prompted many team owners, who had been relying on veteran drivers, to add young, untested drivers to their teams. By his third full season on the tour, Gordon had picked up seven victories to edge Dale Earnhardt by a mere 34 points and win his first Winston Cup championship. At that point, Gordon became a full-fledged media sensation. He appeared in a television commercial with NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, chatted with late-night television hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno, and appeared on People magazine's list of the "50 most beautiful people." He also signed a deal with the William Morris Agency, which has represented such luminaries as Bill Cosby, Cindy Crawford, John Travolta, and Bruce Willis. Gordon single-handedly opened many doors for his young contemporaries, including 2002 Winston Cup points champion Tony Stewart, who have become a huge factor in NASCAR racing. He has a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports and is part owner of the No. 48 team with young phenom Jimmie Johnson as driver. Although Gordon finished fourth in the 2002 points standings, fans and fellow competitors know he can never be ruled out as a contender for Winston Cup's biggest honor.
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