Jeff Gordon, racing royalty.
Everyone knows that. In the 2 1/2 decades since his first victory in NASCAR’s top level, Gordon accrued 93 wins, third all-time behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson. Earlier this year, Gordon was inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame — and he did so with the most votes of any inductee in the Hall’s decade of existence. And even in retirement, Gordon’s NASCAR legacy continues to grow both as a Fox Sports broadcaster and as an executive for his former team, Hendrick Motorsports.
Still, every legend has its origin story.
Gordon’s was 25 years ago this weekend.
The Observer spoke with Gordon and several others close to him who were there at Charlotte Motor Speedway for his victory in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. They told the story of what really transpired that night, and how it set in motion the epic career Gordon ultimately had.
‘WE HAD A LOT OF NAYSAYERS’
When Jeff Gordon first arrived in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series as a rookie in 1993, things didn’t go smoothly. A teenaged Gordon built a reputation for himself on ESPN’s “Thursday Night Thunder” show that highlighted the best drivers in midgets and Sprint Car racing. Gordon had the wins and stats to warrant heavy promotion, but his new NASCAR peers weren’t exactly thrilled about “Wonder Boy” stealing their airtime.
Gordon didn’t help himself by leaving Ford and Bill Davis’ Busch Grand National Series team (now the Xfinity Series) to drive a Chevrolet for Rick Hendrick at Hendrick Motorsports, a somewhat underperforming Cup Series team at the time.
Then there was Gordon’s background — he didn’t mold for a traditional NASCAR driver. He was a 21-year-old “kid” from California and Indiana who didn’t cut his teeth on local Southern tracks, but still landed a premier ride.
Needless to say, all that combined to make Gordon stand out – and not in a way anyone would want.
HUMPY WHEELER, former Charlotte Motor Speedway president: He was quite controversial behind the scenes with the drivers. It wasn’t like it is today where you have a whole bevy of young drivers. This particular time, you only had a couple of them, he being one of them. And he had gotten so much publicity, I think it ticked a lot of them off. ‘This kid can’t drive, we’re gonna see what he can do when he gets down there, wait ‘till Earnhardt gets a hold of him’ – all that stuff.
JOHN BICKFORD, Gordon’s stepfather: Jeff would tell you, even though he came through two years of Busch Grand National, he was still different. He was unique. He knew the microscope was on him.
JEFF GORDON, NASCAR driver: (Rick) took a big chance on me. For him to risk as much as he did ... We didn’t even have a sponsor when he signed me!
And I’m young, right? I’m the age of his daughter. So I’m sure it was sort of strange for him to have such a young kid behind the wheel, but he saw something in me and pursued it.
RICK HENDRICK, owner/founder of Hendrick Motorsports: Everybody thought I was crazy for hiring him. Not for hiring him and putting him in the Busch Series, but for putting him in the Cup Series that quick. You just didn’t do that.
So we had a lot of naysayers.
‘JEFF WAS THE MICHELANGELO’
Gordon’s rookie season in 1993 turned out to be a mixed bag of sorts. He showed off his natural driving talent and feel for a car, but also his inexperience.
Arguably the highlight of that season was the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Gordon earned his first second-place finish, but Dale Earnhardt won the race. Gordon would finish the year with a Rookie of the Year trophy, but no wins.
RAY EVERNHAM, Gordon’s crew chief: It wasn’t a bad year, but we should’ve won some races. We just didn’t have enough experience. That wasn’t just Jeff, that was me and the crew.
The race in ‘93, we were actually in good shape. We ran competitive all day long … We were running with the lead group. But Earnhardt was good, Ernie Irvan was good, there were some good cars up front.
Honestly at that point in our career, I think we were just doing whatever Earnhardt did. It was OK to finish second to him, but just do what he did. And he came down and pitted, took four tires, we took four tires, and I think they kind of blew back up through the field to finish first, and us second.
I think that day was a legitimate day for us because it let us know we were good enough to be up front.
GORDON: Looking back on it, it was a pretty big deal for a rookie to finish second in that race.
HENDRICK: We ran second, so I was excited (after) that race. You know, you could just see spurts of greatness. That just showed us how close we were, what was coming. He was always fast, but we had to finish a race, not get in trouble.
He wrecked 17 cars the first year, and he wrecked the first time we had him at the track, so I’m like, ‘Well, this is going to be expensive.’ (laughs)
GORDON: I don’t remember how many races that year played out to where we could have won them, not really sure. But we probably had more races that stood out were we could have finished (laughs).
EVERNHAM: Honestly, the first time I ever went to Hendrick, Jeff Gordon sent me over there to look at the place to decide whether we can win there. Why aren’t they winning there? Because they really weren’t winning. And I went down and thought to myself, if we can’t win with the stuff this man has, then we don’t belong here. Because he was putting more into that than anybody at that time.
JOHN BICKFORD: Ray and I are looking at this thing as, every tool that it takes to win a championship lies right here on this campus. You have an owner who wants to win it. You have hundreds of people who want to win it, and they have all the tools. It just was nobody had picked it all up. There was no Michelangelo. You know, you had the hammers, the chisels, the marble – you had everything, but no Michelangelo.
Jeff was the Michelangelo that came in there, and Ray was the one who made sure everybody picked up the right tool at the right time to do the right thing.
Given their missed opportunities in 1993, making it to Victory Lane in 1994 became the team’s ultimate — and only — priority.
JOHN BICKFORD: It looked like maybe he hadn’t learned quite enough in ’93. So we come into ‘94, I’m thinking, ‘He’s got to win, or I’m not sure how long this deal is gonna last.’ I’m already thinking, what are we going to do if this doesn’t work out?
EVERNHAM: By ‘94, I was kind of disappointed because I felt like I wasn’t delivering equipment as quick as he was learning. There was a point to where I felt like, ‘I have got to step it up. We have got to step it up with our team to give Jeff winning cars.’
I felt like I was on the hot seat a little bit. I don’t feel like Jeff ever was. I really don’t. Again, I didn’t feel like I was on the hot seat from Mr. Hendrick, but I feel like he would’ve started to get pressure from sponsors and the media.
HENDRICK: I never – never ever – from the first year and the first few races, was like, ‘Hey, I might have made a mistake. I might need someone else.’
EVERNHAM: I knew we were getting closer to a win, but when you’re there, the closer you get to the top, the harder it is. I was just looking for, ‘How do we beat these guys? What do I have to give him?’
‘IF YOU SAT ON THE POLE, IT WAS BRAGGING RIGHTS’
Gordon and his No. 24 team limped into the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 on the heels of three straight finishes outside the Top 20. But Charlotte, one of the first NASCAR tracks Gordon had ever tested at, presented a reason for optimism.
In addition to finishing second to Dale Earnhardt the year before, two of Gordon’s three Busch Grand National Series victories came at Charlotte, as well as the pole for the fall Cup race in 1993.
Those experiences gave Gordon and his team hope that they could turn their season around at Charlotte.
GORDON: The history of Charlotte Motor Speedway for me goes way back all the way to the first time I came to North Carolina, driving by the track and really being blown away. I mean, I’d seen Indianapolis Motor Speedway and driven by Daytona, but had not really seen any NASCAR tracks other than that, and I was so impressed.
I just liked the track right away. I loved the challenges, I loved the speed. I’m not saying it suited me, but it just seemed to click.
EVERNHAM: Something about Charlotte has always been magical for Jeff and I. It’s like we’ve always clicked there. Charlotte was the first track that we ever worked together ever.
We tested there a good bit. We had cars there that were quick. There was just something about Charlotte that was good to us. I liked the racetrack and Jeff was really comfortable there.
HENDRICK: This is home track for me. I mean, this is the one I want to win more than any of them because our folks are here. The pole night here was much bigger than any pole in motorsports, other than Daytona.
RUSTY WALLACE, NASCAR driver: Still to the day, that race carries a ton. It’s a very, very important race. It’s a race that every stakeholder goes to, all the sponsors. And one thing that’s very important, too, why it holds so much stake, is all those families and crew people that go there. They can’t ever go to Dover, Delaware, or Pocono or some of these races, but they all get to go to Charlotte.
WHEELER: I always go down on pit road for the pole, because you usually could find out some pretty good things down there. And everybody was talking about how fast he was running. And then he went out and qualified and blew everybody off, and I could see depression setting in on pit road (laughs).
That night, there was nobody even close to seeing him do that well, and I’m starting to think as a promoter, ‘What’s he doing the rest of them aren’t?’ So I ask around ... and nobody knows anything. ‘I don’t know what the hell he’s doing, he’s just fast!’ Everybody seemed to think he had a little more horsepower. The problem is, most guys get the horsepower and then they can’t handle it. He seemed in practice to be able to get going.
I don’t think anybody knew how good he was with a race car until about then.
EVERNHAM: We built that car for Charlotte, and I think we built it in about three weeks. It was less than four weeks, I can tell you that, from tubing rack to race track. We built it and we took it to the Winston (All-Star Race), and it was really fast there. We won the Open and I swear we were gonna win the Winston, but we got tangled up and spun through the infield and tore up the spoiler and got some damage. For whatever reason, we didn’t finish the race. We took it back to the shop and worked on it pretty much around the clock for three days and brought it back before the race, and then sat on the pole. And as I said, we knew we had a car that was capable of running in the Top 3 or 5.
GORDON: If you sat on the pole, it was bragging rights.
Certainly you come into the garage there feeling pretty good about things. But then you’ve also got a target on your back.
‘I THOUGHT HE’S SCREWED’
Winning the pole gave Gordon and the No. 24 team a boost of confidence. When the 600 finally rolled around on Sunday, they’d spent days perfecting their strategies.
At that point, the only thing left to do was actually race.
GORDON: Even on that weekend, I’m not sure about in practice, but in the race we were a second- or third-place car. We weren’t the best car. Rusty was.
HENDRICK: The race had a lot of cautions. People would pit, people stayed out, and the field got all jumbled up. Then toward the end, Rusty really looked like the car to beat. You’re nervous. The way this race goes, the first half you want to survive. You want to get to 100 laps, and then you see where you are, and you kind of plan.
EVERNHAM: There were times in the race we were good and times we were not good. We adjusted on pit stops – the team kept us in the hunt, Jeff kept us in the hunt. We lost some space to Rusty. Rusty was flying that night! I don’t know where Earnhardt was, but it was basically Rusty and Geoff Bodine.
We were running third. They were whooping us. We were a straightaway behind – it wasn’t like we were getting our butt kicked or anything. Laps kept counting down, counting down.
WHEELER: It wasn’t anybody that could touch ‘em. Which kind of ticked me off, because I wanted to see some guys banging around. I said, ‘Where’s Earnhardt when you need him?’
GORDON: Even though we were a little bit off to Rusty, we were still good. I mean, we were really good. But he was just a little bit better than us.
Normally you would short-pit the leader, and so I don’t know how long Ray was thinking that was what he was gonna do. But at that time, he actually waited for the leader to pit first to see what he did, and then did the opposite.
I saw Rusty hit pit road, and I knew we were leading – at that time, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to be out here for very long,’ because he’s on new tires and he’s only gonna stretch it out even further, and we might find ourselves getting further behind and even falling back to third.
JOHN BICKFORD: We’re into the final pit stop with 20 some odd laps to go, and Ray calls for two tires.
EVERNHAM: It was kind of funny, when we went to Charlotte, we specifically tested putting two tires on the car to see how fast it would go. ... We practiced it, we knew how much speed we could pick up and lose, how many laps it would be good for. It was the oddest thing, because we practiced that for the ‘just in case,’ and the ‘just in case’ happened and gave us a chance to win the race. We were prepared.
WHEELER: I was up in the control tower … and I saw him take those two tires and I said, ‘Jeff is going to go absolutely crazy. He’s just gonna go nuts.’ He always wanted four tires.
HENDRICK: I thought he’s screwed.
‘That ain’t gonna work. Too many laps left.’ I can always tell them what they should have done… on Monday morning (laughs). I wouldn’t want to have to make that call.
EVERNHAM: It wasn’t any kind of genius call or anything like that. It was pretty simple math. It was just a matter of how much faster we could make the pit stop versus how much time they could gain. And when it came down to the final deal, it was really just math.
GORDON: I didn’t question it. I was just like, ‘Well what do we have to lose, right?’ I didn’t really think we were going to beat Rusty on four the way Rusty was running, but at the same time, I didn’t know if Rusty’s pit stop was clean or what. I had no idea.
EVERNHAM: I used to have a thing – ‘Everybody look at me. Look at me. Don’t listen to what I’m saying, look at me.’ So I told them two and said, ‘Alright, we’re going to do two tires,’ and Jeff’s like, ‘Uh, alright…’
It was really kind of funny because Mr. Hendrick was walking back and forth like, ‘What are you gonna do?’ I said I’m gonna do two tires. He paused. ‘Uh, are you sure?’ I said yes. We’ve got this. We can do this.
RON MILLER, Gordon’s public relations rep: Of course I wasn’t questioning Ray’s decision, but I said, ‘Two tires?’ as if I were asking a question, and he looked straight back at me and said, ‘I can read a stopwatch, and Rusty doesn’t have time to catch him.’
WALLACE: I remember I was going through a really tough time of making some important calls on tires. You know, a lot of it was my fault whether to do two tires or four tires, and we were going back and forth on these decisions.
Believe it or not, when you have a fast car and you’re the leader, you’re thinking, ‘Man, hey I’m in control,’ but sometimes it’s quite the opposite.
‘HE JUST JEFF GORDON-ED IT’
Gordon assumed the lead with nine laps to go having barely led all day. Both Rusty Wallace and Geoff Bodine had led for over 100 laps to that point.
But on that night, as on so many others over the next two decades, the outcome of the race rested solely on Gordon’s shoulders.
HENDRICK: We got out first. I thought we’d be OK for about 10 laps, and then Rusty would catch up with four fresh tires.
After four, five, six laps, everybody kind of settled out … That’s something we learned back in those days. Once he got rolling, he’d just yard people. That was just talent.
He was driving like his ass was on fire (laughs). Like he was qualifying every lap.
GORDON: I remember just looking in my mirror going, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ And I just kept putting lap times together, being smooth, hitting my marks.
JOHN BICKFORD: Earnhardt gets between ‘em. Earnhardt was a lap down. He comes on the radio and says, ‘Gordon doesn’t have anything to worry about. He’s won the race.’
MILLER: I actually had my fingers crossed. No lie. And every time he would get close to anybody, my heart would pick up. We didn’t need a caution flag, because if we had a caution flag, Rusty would’ve beaten us.
CAROL BICKFORD, Gordon’s mother: I just wanted the checkered flag to come out. I didn’t want anybody telling me how many laps were left, and I was up in (one of the) condos watching the race, so you’re up high and you can see everything that’s going on.
People up there were counting the laps, and I’m going, ‘Stop, I don’t want to hear it!’ Because it’s a big track, it takes them quite a while to get around. Twenty laps felt like 20 hours.
EVERNHAM: The only thing that screwed up the math was instead of losing time, Jeff went ahead and picked up time and opened up the lead.
He just Jeff Gordon-ed it (laughs).
WALLACE: I remember late, late, late in the race, I remember being so upset about being so good all day long and me after the race thinking, ‘Are you kidding? This happened again? We lost one of the biggest races of the year because it was two tires or four tires? Again?’
GORDON: Maybe five to go I didn’t see him, and they were telling me my lap times were good, and just to keep doing what I was doing, and so once I came off (Turn 4) to take the white flag, I actually started getting caught up in the moment. Just, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna win this thing. I’m going to win my first race, and it’s going to be at Charlotte, and we’re going to beat Rusty,’ and all that stuff.
It’s almost more than a dream come true in those moments, when you’ve been driving a race car since you were a kid, and you strive to compete at the highest level and compete against the best, and you only hope that you can win and accomplish that goal. And when you do, at least for me, my emotions, I’d get very overwhelmed by that. That started happening on the final lap, and then I came and took the checkered, and I was just a mess. I was an absolute mess.
I knew exactly what was going to happen when I got in Victory Lane, which is what happened: tears flowing. My parents were there, Ray, the team. It was Rick, everything. Just all at one time.
EVERNHAM: I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, ‘Holy s---. We really just won a NASCAR Winston Cup race.’ You don’t know it at that time, but your life changes. It changed forever. And it was there at Charlotte, it was the biggest race, and you feel like if I get run over by a bus tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. That’s never going to be taken away.
CAROL BICKFORD: The whole crowd’s going towards the parking lot. We’re trying to get down to the race track, and it’s not an easy job. Someone says, ‘I’m gonna get the golf cart.’ He tried to get a golf cart to take us down there – it wasn’t gonna happen. The crowds were just too crazy. So we ended up having to walk through all those people and then trying to get to the race track.
One of my friends, Linda, had a headset on, listening to everything. And she goes, ‘Oh my god, Carol, oh my god, he’s crying.’ I said don’t tell me – save it ‘till I get there! It was very emotional. Very special. It’s just one of those things you’ll never forget. The first one, I think, is always the biggest. Just an unbelievable feeling. Champagne everywhere (laughs).
WHEELER: Cale Yarborough could get kind of emotional and David Pearson couldn’t. And Petty couldn’t.
But I knew that Jeff would — and he did.
EVERNHAM: I remember Jeff crying – I was like, ‘What’re you crying about?’ He’s emotional. But just how young everybody was… and the hats. We had these giant hats on. Real tall hats. But the champagne spraying and the fireworks going off, having people come by and congratulate us, your first win is big.
It’s like you get hit with a fire hose of emotion, because ... there’s a part of you – no matter how hard you’re working or how good you are – that thinks it may never happen.
MILLER: People made a lot of fun of Jeff for crying in Victory Lane, but I can understand why he did it. He was just a kid! And having won a race like that, I can understand. I understood at the time that he was just overcome with emotion.
GORDON: To me, ceremonial things, that’s cool, that’s fine, but it’s really about engaging with the people who made it happen. It’s about sharing that moment.
This journey came together. (My parents) sacrificed so much, they did everything to get me there. I was just so thankful they were there to share in that moment, because there’s not one or two people I would have rather enjoyed that moment with. Even more than Ray and Rick, to be honest. You know, that’s hard to say, but really they were completely instrumental to making that happen.
JOHN BICKFORD: In those days, you were frightened for your kid. My emotions were concerns for his future. Just to make sure he was gonna be OK, that he didn’t have to go backwards. I felt like when he won that race, I’m pretty sure he’s gonna be OK.
WHEELER: After the race, we always take the winner to the Speedway Club for a toast, and I could just tell his brain was really awash in whatever those good things are – even after you’ve run 600 miles and it’s way into the night.
Because he was there, in his own spot at his own time, and everybody knew at that point there was gonna be a lot of nights like that.
‘AT THAT POINT IN TIME, WE NEEDED JEFF GORDON’
Twenty-five years later, the impact of that race is still apparent. Jeff Gordon would go on to win the inaugural Brickyard 400 later that season before exploding in full in 1995, when he won seven races and the first of his four Cup championships. He retired in 2015 with 93 wins, the third-most history behind Petty and Pearson.
But aside from the springboard that night provided to Gordon’s career, it set so many other things in motion. Gordon’s atypical path to NASCAR success opened the door for other nontraditional drivers to follow suit, like former IndyCar driver Tony Stewart. It also proved that young drivers could have immediate success, a standard that still holds in NASCAR with the likes of Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.
EVERNHAM: I remember the next day after Charlotte ... got up and went to work at 7 o’clock in the morning like I normally did. Drove to the shop and I’m driving past Charlotte Speedway and they’re all cleaning up, and I’m like, ‘S---, we won that race last night. Wait, it wasn’t a dream. We really won the race.’
JOHN BICKFORD: The media called it a gimmick. The other crew chiefs are going, ‘What’s Ray Evernham doing? He’s tricking us!’
The reality was, drivers had done two-tire stops – they just weren’t 20 years old, DuPont-sponsored, and under monstrous microscopes because they were California kids who didn’t talk or come from the South. He didn’t eat barbecue every weekend.
So immediately following that race, there was a level of self-confidence amongst all of them that, we know how to do it now.
GORDON: That’s why we won the Brickyard 400, in my opinion. With all the pressure that was on us for that race, being sort of a hometown race of me, so much hype, and the pressure of racing with Ernie Irvan that day, then also Brett Bodine in the closing laps, I don’t think I could have won that race had I not won the 600 first.
That just gave me a sense of confidence that I’ve got what it takes. I can do it. I can compete at the highest level with anybody out there, and that our team is good enough to win.
The Brickyard 400 forever was my biggest race, and that would not have happened without the 600 win. To me, it’s probably in my top three or four. Brickyard, my final Martinsville, Daytona 500, and then the 600.
HENDRICK: For me, that race was, ‘You weren’t crazy to pick this kid.’ He’s everything you thought he was going to be, plus 10. Boy, this is going to be the start of something special. So it was not only the moment that you win the race, but you could just see it was gonna be this way for a long time.
Then the one that really put everybody on their head was when he won the Brickyard. I remember coming off Turn 4, sideways, leaving those black marks on the pavement – after that race, everybody knew this is a superstar, and here he comes.
WALLACE: The pathway I was going down was Earnhardt’s winning, Rusty’s winning, Earnhardt’s winning, Rusty’s winning – and then all of a sudden, who’s this other guy? Who is this other guy getting in the party all of a sudden? It almost felt like that way.
But then I learned to have to respect him because it was obvious he had really good talent. So it went that way for a long time, and we were at each other’s throats for a long time. Not only because competition on the track, but I was having a tough time (accepting) that there was a new kid on the block. But with that said, after I quit driving, Jeff and I have become really good friends. We really have. I respect him and he respects me.
But son of a b----, he was a pain in my ass (laughs).
GORDON: It’s one of the biggest moments of my career. Oh absolutely. Because it was my first win at the elite level I wanted to be at, and I think it sent a message through the garage. It’s like I’m looking in the mirror going ‘I just won a NASCAR Winston Cup race, one of the biggest ones… and I’m going to win some more (laughs). I like how this feels!’
I mean, I was pretty arrogant back then. I was very young and a little cocky and things were going well, so all I needed was a win.
Before that, you still have these questions and doubts because you haven’t won. You’re thinking, what do we have to do to win? Well then it was no longer, ‘What do we have to do to win?’ – it was, ‘Here’s how we’re going to win.’
JOHN BICKFORD: When you look back at it, to me, you have to set aside just the win and say, ‘How big a deal was that?’ It was a monstrous deal for every Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott – for all sorts of people – because it demonstrated that one, a young driver can carry a top sponsor for a top team and win a race.
The whole world validated Rick Hendrick, who was under huge criticism from Ford and everybody else. What Jeff did was, he went out there and showed them Rick made a great decision.
WHEELER: At that point in time, we needed Jeff Gordon. Because you could see that Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, etc., these guys were getting long in the tooth and weren’t gonna be around forever. So there wasn’t a substantial – that I can remember – young driver at the time coming along that could pose a start ‘em situation like we had with Earnhardt at the time. And so he was needed. He certainly fulfilled that role down the road. That particular race was just the propellant that he needed to move up along the ladder.
Jeff came at a point in time where he could show us a lot, and he did of course.
EVERNHAM: People look back to Richard Petty’s first win, I don’t think a lot of people know what it was. Dale Earnhardt’s first win, I think he won at Bristol. You look at Jeff, he won at one of the crown jewels in his first race. He, to me, is still one of the top drivers in NASCAR, no matter what. It’s still Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, because they had the biggest effect on the growth or the change of the sport throughout decades.
So Jeff’s big win, I think if it’s monumental for him, it should be monumental for everybody else. That was the day that ‘kid,’ as Earnhardt used to call him, broke in and made a statement.