In the Hot Seat with Jeff Gordon

Namely, Jeff Gordon appreciates those who supported him in his early years in NASCAR. (Photo: Chris Owens)

Namely, Jeff Gordon appreciates those who supported him in his early years in NASCAR. (Photo: Chris Owens)

In general, Jeff Gordon greatly reshaped the paradigm of NASCAR and motorsports. Certainly, his meteoric rise in sprint cars resulted in his remarkable NASCAR career.

Of course, most race fans know about Jeff Gordon and his illustrious NASCAR Cup Series career. Indeed, the 93 wins and four Cup championships remain remarkable feats for this NASCAR Hall of Famer.

However, some may not recall Jeff Gordon’s journey into NASCAR. Moreover, Gordon’s origins truly span back to 1990-’91 when he raced for Bill Davis Racing.

Notably, this year marks Jeff Gordon’s 30th anniversary of his rookie NASCAR XFINITY Series season. By all means, even Gordon reflects in wonderment about his origins in NASCAR and the fateful chain of events into Cup.

Earlier this year, Gordon spoke about his FOX NASCAR experiences, rivalry with Rusty Wallace and car names. Now, we catch up with Gordon about those initial years as a relative outsider in NASCAR and much more. Without further ado, let’s get “In the Hot Seat with Jeff Gordon” again here on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson : It’s your 30th anniversary in the NASCAR world. In 1990, you tested at the Buck Baker Driving School. And you made your first XFINITY Series start with Hugh Connerty in the Outback car at Rockingham. How incredible were those experiences with you taking on a new racing series after having open wheel and dirt track experience?

From 1990 to 2016, Jeff Gordon made his presence known with authority in NASCAR. (Photo: Eric J. Anderson)

From 1990 to 2016, Jeff Gordon made his presence known with authority in NASCAR. (Photo: Eric J. Anderson)

Jeff Gordon : That’s the beauty of where I sit now, right? My driving career is pretty much behind me. And now I get to see the sport through the lens of a commentator or partner at Hendrick Motorsports. And I get to reflect on this amazing career that I had.

When I went into the Hall of Fame, that was one of my favorite things was going back through all these experiences that got me there to that place. Those ones that you mentioned, those were such big moments for a young driver trying to break into it. And you have these opportunities that you don’t know where it’s taking you. But you’ve got to seize the moment.

I was so fortunate to get those opportunities and seize those moments. One thing led to another. And that just led to another. The whole thing just snowballed. It’s amazing to me. Even today, I’m blown away that I had the career that I had. And things like sitting on the outside front row at Rockingham with Hugh Connerty and Ray Evernham, that that even happened.

The midget sprint car races taught me so much. And they gave me those opportunities and meeting Rick Hendrick. All of that. You couldn’t script it or repeat it if you tried it, if you had to do it all over again. It’s amazing. And now I look back and smile and enjoy what kind of career that created because of those moments.

Tiongson : Who knew back in 1990 that it would spark, like you said, the kind of amazing career you enjoyed? But that’s the cool thing about, like you said, when you look back, how one decision after another and your performances and efforts led to where you got to be today. That’s kind of what inspires me with my career.

Now, when you started off in NASCAR during that time, before racing in Cup, which drivers made you feel at home or welcomed as possible?

Truly, Jeff Gordon relished his friendships with two notable NASCAR stars. (Photo: Chris Owens)

Truly, Jeff Gordon relished his friendships with two notable NASCAR stars. (Photo: Chris Owens)

Gordon : Well, a guy named Chuck Bown, depending on how far back your memories go. You’re young. But the very first test that I did with Hugh Connerty and Ray Evernham, we were in a Pontiac. Chuck Bown, I think, was the defending champion, if I’m not mistaken. Or he led the points that year, maybe, is what it was.

We tried getting up to speed, not 100% comfortable. And I don’t know if it was Ray or who asked Chuck if he would drive the car. And so he did.

He came over. And I had some problems with the bumps getting into three, just a little bit unsure of how far I could take the car into the corner there.

He drove the car, and man, it showed me what that car was capable of and that it would stick. It gave me the confidence. All of sudden, I went out there, and man, I was right at the speed. And maybe even went a little faster than Chuck did in the car after that. So that was pretty cool.

I always liked Chuck. I thought he was a great guy. Just real humble and a great racecar driver. I can’t say I was real, real close to him. But I was thankful of that moment.

After that, I would say Kenny Wallace and Bobby Labonte who I ended up being rookies with in Cup later. But those are guys that I raced with and know in the XFINITY Series, or Busch Grand National back then. And we had some good times. So, those guys stand out also.

Tiongson : Chuck Bown, I didn’t realize you had some kind of acquaintanceship with him. I think he drove in Cup a few years later.

Gordon : I think that may… there’s only one Chuck Bown that I know. (laughs) But yeah, I mean, it was just one of those things where… if he hadn’t gotten in the car that day, I don’t know if I would have gone as fast as I did. And when I went that fast after he drove the car, then all of a sudden, everybody paid attention. “Whoa, man, who’s this kid?”

Tiongson : You’ve blazed your own trail since then. I think you greatly changed the paradigm of NASCAR. But that little moment served as the catalyst, if you will, of that situation, for sure.

Putting you back at 20, 21 years old, when you chose the opportunity for Rick Hendrick’s team after what you knew with Bill Davis’s team and being comfortable with the Ford outlet, did it feel like a leap of faith giving up what you were comfortable with joining a multi-car conglomerate?

"I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have turned out quite the way that it did with Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports." - Jeff Gordon (Photo: Bret Kelley)

“I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have turned out quite the way that it did with Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports.” – Jeff Gordon (Photo: Bret Kelley)

Gordon : Well, as a racecar driver, you’re just trying… you’re looking out there at your goal. At that point, the goal was breaking into NASCAR and ultimately into the Cup series. The only way you’re going to do that and what got me to that point was driving good racecars, having good people that had the resources with competing at the highest level.

So the challenge of that decision was not anything to do with Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports. I mean, I saw what they were capable of. Even Ray Evernham helped me look at this organization and go, “Man, they have everything it takes to be successful at the Cup level.”

What made it hard was I built this bond with Bill Davis and that team. And Ford helped me in Busch Grand National get that opportunity. I mean, if Lee Morse hadn’t made the call and asked me to test for Bill Davis, who knows what would have happened? So you’re faced with these very difficult decisions along the way.

There’s no easy path. And you’re going to hurt some feelings sometimes along the way. There’s no doubt that my relationship with Bill was never the same after that decision that I made. And that’s the part that hurt. Who knows what would have happened or would have been?

But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have turned out quite the way that it did with Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports. I can’t help but say it was worth it. At the same time, even when I went into the Hall of Fame, I called Bill Davis to thank him and talk to him. And that was a tough conversation.

He didn’t want to take my call at first. And he didn’t really have a lot to say. But I’m glad I called him. And we’ve kind of stayed in touch a little bit after that. And so that was the hardest part about that decision.

Tiongson : Well, I’m glad at least you and Bill mended on that situation.

Gordon : I don’t want to say we’ve totally… I don’t know if we’ve totally mended it. But we’ve made steps.

Tiongson : In the past, you’ve mentioned a lot about Ray. And I’m sure you know he started the SRX series. Did you consider joining the SRX series?

Ultimately, Jeff Gordon greatly considered competing in SRX. (Photo: Shawn Gritzmacher)

Ultimately, Jeff Gordon greatly considered competing in SRX. (Photo: Shawn Gritzmacher)

Gordon : Well, Ray and I are close. And we talk all the time. When that whole program came along, I talked with him and with George Pyne and Sandy Montag and those folks. And I’m very interested in what they’re doing.

I’m always going to be involved from a standpoint of just being friends of those guys. As far as me being actively a part of the series, it just comes down to my schedule, timing, and conflicts, really.

I love the concept and want to see it be successful. I think the more successful series like that are, the more that motorsports and NASCAR can be successful. But I just don’t know if I see myself getting back behind the wheel of a car. I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I’m enjoying TV. And I’m enjoying my role at Hendrick Motorsports and being a part of the competition in that way.

And my family life, too, and trying to balance all that out. So currently, I don’t see myself being involved in it any further than just offering advice to them as they navigate through it, if I can, if they want. I’m happy to do that just because I want to see them be successful. And Ray is one of my best friends.

Tiongson : Absolutely. And hey, anything that has input from Jeff Gordon has got to be a really good quality project. So I’m with you on that, and certainly, even if you’re not going to be driving in it, I know if you give input to it, it’s going to be a really entertaining and awesome series to watch just like IROC and all of those all-star series we used to see back in the day.

Gordon : Yeah, IROC was very cool. I loved being a part of it. That’s what you want to see. Drivers from all over the world driving whatever car Ray comes up with and whatever tracks they put on the schedule. It has the potential to be a really fun and exciting event. And I wish them all the best.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Jeff Gordon for taking the time for this latest “In the Hot Seat” interview series on The Podium Finish. Also, thanks to Jon Edwards and Hendrick Motorsports for making this interview possible ahead of this year. You can keep track of Jeff Gordon on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, his official website and here on TPF! Congratulations on 30 years in NASCAR, Jeff!

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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