I think the only true greatness is the kind you achieve; and this is what Jeff Gordon has earned in plenty. In 1997, en route to his second Winston Cup title, Jeff Gordon led NASCAR with 10 victories. Throughout the season, it was clear that many NASCAR fans disliked the driver of the DuPont Refinishes Chevrolet. After he won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in September in which he won the coveted "Winston Million," some nitwit in the stands threw a glass bottle at the car as he came around the track. When he was involved in a crash at Bristol Motor Speedway in August, the roar of the crowd was deafening. However, the jeers were nothing new for Jeff; they were almost expected.
Fans rooting against a driver is nothing new. These days it's not popular to bash Darrell Waltrip since he's made the champion's provisional starting spot vogue. However, I'd like to get into the 'way back machine, Mr. Peabody.' In 1981 and 1982, Waltrip won 12 races each season and captured the Winston Cup title in both seasons. Whenever he did an interview he never held back about telling everyone just how great he was. In simplest terms, he was a loudmouth and damn proud of it. For NASCAR fans who remember those days, it seems strange to hear almost all the fans cheer 'ol DW' these days. In those days, he was the most reviled driver on the circuit. However, Darrell has earned cheers and respect from the fans as a result of his dedication to the sport.
Jeff Gordon burst upon the NASCAR scene in 1993...literally. When he was just 23 years old, he captured the Brickyard 400 in 1994 in front of his hometown fans. He won the Winston Cup title the following season. Then he started hearing boos during driver introductions. No big deal; that's the price of success in the sport. During interviews in victory lane over the next few years, he would thank God for a safe race and for the talent he has been blessed with. He never bragged or boasted about his wins or his ability; all the credit was given to "the guys back at the shop." Throughout the 1997 season, he was booed when he was introduced and booed when he won a race. Through it all, the worst thing that people could say about him was that "he wins too much."
In the last race of the 1997 season, Jeff overcame adversity to capture the title. He started 37th in a backup car and his two rivals in the standings started third and ninth. His title hopes looked bleak at the start. However, he finished 17th and won the title by 14 points. After he stopped his car at the start-finish line at Atlanta after capturing the title, a funny thing happened. He heard deafening cheers from the 150,000 fans in the grandstand. Jeff jumped onto the roof of his car and raised his arms; the crowd continued to cheer. Will NASCAR fans continue to cheer Jeff in 1998? I hope so because he's surely earned it. Ofcourse, his detractors will always be there. I've even heard about "anti-Gordon" groups on the internet. I'm glad they exist; they add humor to the stock car world. To those fans, I just have this to say; learn to deal with it. Jeff's going to be winning races for a long time to come.
Whether you like Jeff Gordon or not, you have to respect his accomplishments both on and off the racetrack. On Saturday night before the Atlanta race, Jeff met with Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, and Motor Racing Outreach director Max Helton for a prayer session. They held hands and prayed for a safe race and for each other. Calling it "the coolest thing," Jeff mentioned MRO and Max in post race interviews as "inspiring" and vowed to pay them back any way that he could.
In 1998, Jeff will seek his third Winston Cup title. Only a handful of drivers have more than one title; and all those guys are legends of the sport. It's too early to include Jeff on a list of "legends" since he's only 26 years old. Twenty-six years old, 29 victories, two Winston Cup titles, and a bank account that seems to multiply every year. It's a great time to be a Jeff Gordon fan; it's an even better time to be Jeff Gordon.
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