HOMESTEAD, Fla. – As the guiding force of Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR’s career for nearly seven years, starting from the No. 24 Chevrolet’s Nov. 15, 1992 debut, Ray Evernham has a unique perspective Sunday.
When Gordon’s career concludes, possibly with a fifth championship, in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his first Sprint Cup Series crew chief will be present at the track for a possible coronation that still will feel like validation regardless of the outcome.
“He was a kid when I met him,” Evernham said of Gordon, who was 21 when he made the first of a record 796 straight starts (and counting). “Some days, it takes my breath away when I look at the things we did the first time we met to what he’s accomplished now, and it makes me feel really good to know that I had this feeling about this young man. That he was special.
“From the day that I met him, I just had this feeling that he struck me as being special. He’s done that. He’s not disappointed me in any way, shape or form. He has truly become everything I thought he could be and more.”
Gordon already has transcended NASCAR as a superstar who also was a suave spokesman with mass appeal. Evernham believes if the four-time series champion goes out on top, it’ll thrust Gordon even further into the mainstream sporting consciousness.
“When you stop and think about what he could accomplish, it’s not just motorsports,” said Evernham, now a NASCAR on NBC analyst. “To me, that’s one of the biggest sporting stories in the world.
“If he were to win this championship, it puts him as a figure that can be used in the same sentence as a Muhammad Ali or somebody like that.”
The most obvious comparisons to Gordon have been John Elway leading the Denver Broncos to championships in his final two seasons or Ray Bourque winning his first title with the Colorado Avalanche in his last season in the NHL.
Evernham, though, views those as imperfect parallels.
“I know some guys closed their careers by winning Super Bowls, but the game of football hasn’t changed as much as racing,” he said. “Jeff’s done that over a period of 23 years with mechanical changes, rules changes, other competitors, different cars and tracks.
“He’s had to adapt and rethink the way he’s raced over the years. That just amazes me.”
Just as mind-boggling to Evernham is Gordon’s record for consecutive starts, which he believes isn’t appreciated enough for underscoring the driver’s intelligence and toughness.
“How many athletes have said they never missed a game in their whole career? I hope that years from now, the generations to come will realize what an accomplishment that is, let alone in a world that has become so extremely competitive,” Evernham said. “Auto racing is more competitive and harder to do now as a driver than it’s ever been.”
“That just says a lot about how he’s been smart enough. Talk to a guy like Mario Andretti who fought his way through all the years when people were dying at one or two a week, and how they had to change their style and know in a split-second whether to take a chance or not. It’s just amazing that Jeff has kept that sharpness over all those years.”
There’s a simple edge that still remains after all those years, too, said Evernham, who guided Gordon to 47 victories and three championships in 217 races from 1992-99.
“He’s Jeff Gordon,” Evernham said. “Like I keep saying, he might not be as good as he once was, but if Jeff Gordon is as good Sunday as he ever was, those guys are in trouble. That’s just the bottom line.
“If he can summon everything that he’s done in the last 23 or 24 years just one more time, the rest of those guys are in trouble.”