Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR Sprint Cup debut in the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta was the final race of Richard Petty’s career.
At the time, Petty, a seven-time champion, was considered NASCAR’s greatest driver. But when Gordon announced Thursday that 2015 would be his last fulltime season, some believe he may be the greatest stock-car driver ever.
“I call him the ‘GOAT’ – the Greatest of All Time,” said three-time Sprint Cup champion and Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip. “I believe he is the greatest NASCAR driver there has ever been.”
Gordon has won 92 points-paying race wins, third behind Hall of Famers Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). And his four championships rank fourth behind the seven won by Petty and Dale Earnhardt and six by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson (whose No. 48 car Gordon owns).
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But Gordon competed in his prime against more talented fields, better-funded teams and in a more technologically advanced era than what Petty and Pearson faced in the 1960s and ‘70s and Earnhardt in the ‘80s. He is the sport’s winningest road course driver with nine victories and stands alone as the all-time leader with 12 restrictor plate wins, including three at the Daytona 500, and a record five Brickyard 400 wins, most recently last year.
“Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said.
Gordon’s biggest contribution to NASCAR, however was taking the sport out of tobacco road and across the nation. A native Californian, he attracted talented drivers to the sport and tapped new fan bases, including those who flock to Kansas Speedway, which opened in 2001 and was the site of victories by Gordon in 2001, 2002 and 2014.
“Jeff Gordon is a superstar who nearly singlehandedly changed the personality and perception of a race car driver in NASCAR,” said Larry McReynolds, a crew chief for Earnhardt in the late 1990s. “Before he came along, the perception was more about the good old Southeastern boy wearing blue jeans, big belt buckles and boots. But he created a new buzz in our sport because he looked like he stepped off the cover of a GQ magazine.”
McReynolds, now an analyst for Fox, won’t discount Gordon’s chances at winning an elusive fifth championship in 2015.
“We all know Jeff Gordon well enough to know he wants to win more races and maybe another Daytona 500 and another Brickyard 400,” McReynolds said. “As close as he came last year in the championship, he wants to be a player in the championship this year.”
Meanwhile, Gordon’s fellow competitors still respect his ability to compete for a title.
“I know who I’m placing my bets on for this championship,” Tweeted Clint Bowyer.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, said: “Jeff Gordon was my childhood hero. Really going to cherish racing against him in his final season.”