Tired of Jeff Gordon? Too bad.
In his fifth season of NASCAR Winston Cup racing, Gordon has become not only a winning machine -- witness his series-leading seven victories through 15 races this season -- but an industry unto himself.
The scary part: Gordon's career is just getting started.
At the age of 25, Gordon has been tapped as one of a handful of athletes who will carry his sport into the 21st century, joining such 20-something stars as Ken Griffey Jr., Grant Hill and Tiger Woods.
"Jeff is getting better every lap he makes," said Ray Evernham, crew chief for Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet team. "If anything amazes me, it's him. He's very intelligent. He's always been able to drive a race car, but he feels a lot of things. We couldn't do the things we do without a great talent in the seat.
"Every once in a while, somebody comes along who's got the gift, and he's the one right now."
With only 139 Winston Cup races behind him, Gordon already ranks fifth among active drivers with 26 victories. All those victories have come in the past 98 races. Gordon also has 64 top-five and 84 top-10 finishes.
Marketing in gear
Combine that success with Gordon's good looks (People magazine recently selected him as one of the "50 Most Beautiful People") and you've got a marketing tool the likes of which NASCAR never has enjoyed: a driver who transcends the stereotype of a stock-car driver.
Gordon has his own web site (www.jeffgordon.com). He is featured in a Pepsi commercial with Shaquille O'Neal and Deion Sanders. Billboards and magazines across the nation feature Gordon's mug staring back at you in one of those "milk mustache" advertisements. Soon, 3.5 million boxes of Close-Up toothpaste will hit the market bearing a picture of Gordon and wife, Brooke, a former Miss Winston. And in the works are a shoe deal, a video game and a telecommunications deal that will put Gordon's image on prepaid phone cards.
"I don't know if I consider myself as taking that role of leading NASCAR Winston Cup, but there has been a lot of attention," said Gordon, who earlier this year won the Daytona 500. "We've won a lot of races -- won the championship two years ago. It's a role anybody would definitely want.
"I'm comfortable with it. I'm young, aggressive on the track, and off the track I'm able to endure a pretty tough schedule because I'm young, I feel like. I'm enjoying every bit of it."
It seems Gordon really has hit his stride this year. He leads the Winston Cup standings by 92 points over Mark Martin, and he's on a pace to win 15 races, which would break the single-season, modern-era (since 1972) record of 13 set by Richard Petty in 1975.
Yet Gordon still is a kid, learning his craft and getting better.
A lot of Gordon's success seems built on his relationship with Evernham and the vast resources of ultra-rich Hendrick Motorsports.
'We have confidence'
"I feel like we've got the perfect combination of a team right now," said Gordon, who won 10 races last year and seven in 1995. "We have the confidence in each other. No other team is quite as precise as we are right now.
"When I need Ray to step up and make a call, whether it's a two-tire change or how long to wait for gas, he steps up and makes the right call. When they need me to step up, I've been able to do it. You've got to rely on every player and every person on the team to make it happen."
Gordon's competition recognizes the No. 24 team's cohesion.
"He's not perfect, but with that team, there's no telling how many races he's going to win," said Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion whose star has descended as Gordon's has risen. "Sure, there's some jealousy out there when anybody wins as much as he does, but I'm not one of them.
"It's good racing when you're racing with him. He races you clean."
Gordon would be a solid bet to win again today. The Winston Cup circuit took last weekend off, and in the past eight races after an open date, Gordon has two victories and six top-three finishes.
"I never dreamed of getting this far, so I've far exceeded the dreams," said Gordon, the 1995 Pepsi 400 winner. "There are certainly a lot of goals I have left to achieve that are going to take a long time to achieve. While some guys are trying to win their eighth championship, I'm trying to catch up to them.
"But we've got a lot of time to do things like that and try to win more races. Every year, you learn more about life in general and learn a lot more about where racing fits in."
(Pepsi 400 lineup, Page 3C)
Pub Date: 7/05/97