By the time Jeffrey Michael Gordon was 10 years old, he had already won two national championships. Having raced Quarter Midgets since the age of five, Gordon racked up a pair of titles in 1979 and '81, beating competition as old as 17. Before he was old enough to drive on public streets, Gordon attained four championships in go-karts and had won races in the All Star Circuit of Champions Sprint Car series.
"When I was five years old," reflected Gordon, who was born in Vallejo, Calif., "it was just something my dad did to keep me out of my mom's way and give me something to do in the field near our house. For most of my life, racing was what we did for fun on weekends."
The climb to racing's major leagues was planned by stepfather John Bickford. When Gordon was 15, Bickford moved the family to the Indianapolis suburbs of Pittsboro so the young driver could get more experience in open-wheel racing. Gordon made an immediate impact in Sprint Cars built by Bickford.
At 16, he became the youngest recipient of a United States Auto Club competitor's license. In 1989, Gordon won races in three USAC open-wheel divisions, graduated from high school with a B average, and became a full-time race car driver.
In 1990, at age 19, Gordon won nine of 21 starts in USAC's rugged Midget division, and became its youngest champion. He also dabbled in World of Outlaws Sprint Car competition, the nation's leading organization for the free-wheeling Sprints. By '91, Gordon had won USAC's Silver Crown title, winning major events at Phoenix and at Indianapolis' one-mile dirt track.
After completing a course at the Buck Baker Driving School for stock cars, Gordon landed a ride with Bill Davis' NASCAR Busch Series team. "My focus for the future is NASCAR racing," Gordon said at the time. "I'm in stock cars to stay. For me, NASCAR racing holds the greatest promise and potential."
Gordon made the most of his opportunity. He won three NASCAR Busch Series superspeedway events in 1992, captured 11 poles, and finished fourth in the final points standings. Gordon's knack for high-speed superspeedway racing caught the eye of NASCAR Winston Cup team owner Rick Hendrick, who quickly signed him to a multiyear contract.
In his second ride in a NASCAR Winston Cup car, Gordon won the 1993 Twin 125-mile qualifier at Daytona. The remainder of his rookie campaign was characterized by speedy runs but plenty of crashes. By '94, the frayed edges had been polished with experience and maturity, and Gordon won his first two NASCAR Winston Cup points races, Charlotte's Coca-Cola 600 and the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1995, Gordon snared his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship at the age of 24, becoming the second youngest manto ever cop NASCAR's most cherished crown. "Realistically, we were hoping for a top-five finish in the points," said Gordon. "You always start a season with the championship in mind, but in 1995, we didn't think it was possible." Gordon built a solid points lead by late summer, but had to hold off a furious rally by cagey veteran Dale Earnhardt to secure his first title.
Gordon won the NASCAR Winston Cup championship again in 1997 and '98, and lost the '96 title by a narrow margin after winning 10 races. His fourth championship came in 2001, making him only the third person in history to win more than three titles at NASCAR's top level of competition.
Time will tell if Jeff Gordon is able to match or surpass the record of seven championships jointly held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. This much is certain, though. Jeff Gordon shines brightly among NASCAR's biggest stars.