Looking back to my first years as a NASCAR Sprint Cup racing fan, I was always curious as to why Jeff Gordon was the most polarized figure in the sport.
I mean, what did the guy do to attract so many fans to his side yet detract many racing enthusiasts away from him?
He won too much.
He seldom wrecked out of a race.
Good driving and teamwork.
From cheating accusations to NASCAR "giving him the call," the fact that Gordon was winning (and winning a lot) was really amazing to me.
After all, when one competes in a field against the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, the Labonte brothers, and Dale Jarrett, to name a few, your driving abilities ought to match up against the best that the sport offered during the time.
So why did fans hate on Jeff Gordon back then (and to an extent, to this day)?
Was it the wins?
The attention he garnered on and off the track?
His seemingly rehearsed victory lane speeches thanking God and his sponsors?
Let's flash back to the 1990s, minus the awful fashion and slang.
NASCAR was transitioning greatly from an underrated sport to one that gained notoriety from the 1990 Tom Cruise film Days of Thunder and Sports Illustrated's July '95 cover story that informed its readers about some racing series that became quite the national sensation.
Aerodynamic body styles were rapidly changing from competition friendly to sleek bullets that may have taken away the competitiveness of the sport from the racing of the past.
As racing insiders would say, "the cars' drivability were being taken away from the drivers themselves and put to the pit crews and engineers."
The shift from a short track-oriented schedule to a market-driven, superspeedway flurried season of NASCAR competition was making its presence known.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway joined the circuit in 1994, followed by Texas Motor Speedway and California Speedway in 1997.
All of that, plus this Vallejo, Calif. native, Jeff Gordon, who looked and talked unlike any "Wild-Eyed Southern Boy," that came into the sport and beat the greats at their game, had to irk the traditionalists.
Those fans followed the likes of Earnhardt, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott, and the Alabama Gang (notably Bobby and Davey Allison).
There were no gimmes by the elites of the sport—after all, who would want to let a "kid" defeat them in front of a large exodus of motorsports fans?
Yet, there was that No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet, starting in the front of the field, streaking away to wins on a weekly basis.
During the 1990s, the DuPont team collected 49 victories, 30 pole positions, 118 top-five placements, 144 top-10s, and three Cup titles.
All of these accolades were accomplished by JG just before the ripe "old" age of 29.
Growing up from my childhood days to adolescence years, watching NASCAR was like my life in the 1990s flashing by.
I admired watching the outsider from California, continuing to dominate in the greatest stock car series in the States.
It was like watching Days of Thunder before my eyes, minus the corny factor that is so prevalent in a stock car film.
Not to mention, Gordon had a brilliant pit crew supporting him in any given race.
Led by crew chief Ray Evernham, the No. 24 was one of the best teams in the sport, busting off sub-18 second pit stops and making remarkable adjustments to Gordon's car when it was performing below winning standards.
Their "Refuse to Lose" attitude vaulted them from the virtual afterthought in the 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway to Gordon's moniker as "the biggest one-man marketing machine in all of sports" by Forbes magazine in late 1998.
Older, a bit wiser, and seasoned as an individual, I'm still a sports fan, and I still smile when I reflect on my rendition of the "good old days" of NASCAR.
Still cheering on Gordon after 17 years, a win by "The DuPont Dude" is still as gratifying as it was when I was a kid in my living room, lining up my die-cast cars on my table with the No. 24 leading the field.
Unlike my initial years into the sport, as I became a NASCAR fan in 1991, I can understand why Gordon was such a polarizing sports figure.
Sure, the argument could be made that fans and drivers envied the instant success of the young driver.
Watching the tapes of his victories from the past decade, I actually cringe when Gordon does his speech in the winner's circle.
It seemed choreographed.
His kisses to his then-wife Brooke and the "Thank God" for everything that happened to him was definitely not a sight to the detractors who found more ways to humiliate the driving talent.
Then there were the Ray-Ban sunglasses he had to put on, even if it was an overcast day at the track they raced at for over three-and-a-half hours. Were they really that necessary?
Gordon could seemingly do no wrong, even if there was that slight chance of my racing idol being at fault.
But everyone makes mistakes, including the best of them.
Squeaky clean, polished, and without a fault?
Sure, it was impressive that he was able to have those qualities in the 1990s, but was this the true Jeff Gordon?
Fast forward now to 2009.
Jeff Gordon is married to his second wife, Ingrid Vanderbosch, a model from Belgium.
His pride and joy not only comes in his on-track success, but with his daughter Ella Sofia, who has made an appearance with her proud papa in the winner's circle during the Gatorade Duels at Daytona in February.
The No. 24 is still the force on the track, with their resurgence this season being one of the biggest storylines in NASCAR.
A proud husband and father, Gordon is also a changed man with the most important aspect of his life: his family.
Once estranged from his stepfather John Bickford and his mother Carol, at various points in the season, Gordon's parents make the trip to the NASCAR races to cheer their sensational son on for the win.
When Gordon speaks to the media these days, there is no longer the over-usage of religious praises or this aura that the 37-year-old driver is the android that wanted to be human.
Instead, we see a human out there who, week after week, puts on a great show, works hard with his team, and shows to all of the fans at the track that Jeff Gordon is for real.
Those accomplishments are acknowledged by Gordon through hard work and a supporting cast at Hendrick Motorsports that provides him with the best equipment in all of the sport.
The old Gordon of the 1990s may have won a lot more than the one who competes in a more competitive NASCAR in the 21st century.
Heck, he hasn't won a title since 2001.
But if you're wondering where the real Jeff Gordon is, he's leading the points standings yet again, looking to make the Drive for Five alive.
Get ready, Gordon haters—this may be the year for the new school JG with some old school winning tricks still up the Californian's sleeves!
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