When he was about a year old, he, his older sister, Kim, and his mother went to a race at Vallejo Speedway with John Bickford. By the time Jeff was 4, John and Carol were married. Jeff's stepfather took him under his "racing wing" and bought him a BMX bicycle and then a Quarter Midget race car when he was 5.
"I ran Rio Linda, Sunnyvale, Visalia, Pomona . . . mainly around the Sunnyvale-Fremont area, and Rio Linda, which was a dirt track we'd go to some weekends. In fact, the very first time I ever got into a race car was at Rio Linda," Gordon said. His stepdad seemed to know that Jeff would become a race driver because he had him practicing laps in his Quarter Midget soon after he got it. "We'd take that car out every night after I got home from work and run it lap after lap," John said. "Jeff couldn't seem to get enough of it." By the time he was 8, Jeff had won his first Quarter Midget championship. Two more followed, and by the early 1980s, Jeff and also won four class championships in Go-Karts. Jeff took to the quarter midget cars like he was born to race. He was winning races before he could read or write. Jeff ran quarter-midget races every weekend somewhere in the U.S.
Jeff was winning so frequently in quarter midgets that at age nine, he was beating drivers 17 and older. On and on he went, usually racing on dirt and always moving to a higher level of success.
John Bickford, who married Jeff's mother, Carol, when Jeff was a year old, says racing was Jeff's idea. They made sure he was as safe as possible. "We were always trying to prepare for the next opportunity -- that would be the way to say it," Bickford says. "I think all parents have a certain level of concern, but if he chose skydiving I'd be more worried than racing." The highlight of Gordon's California racing career was the quartermidget nationals. Jeff, then 11, was winning steadily, but this was special. Bickford says Gordon was confident but cautious. "He was smart enough in the races he didn't win that he knew anything could happen," says Bickford. "He knew there was always a chance he'd lose; so he couldn't be cocky."
But he didn't lose. And once it was determined that Jeff would be a racer, the family had a decision to make. By 1985, Jeff's parents knew that their son's future was in racing. Vallejo, California, was wonderful, but Jeff could get little competition racing other kids. He needed to race against adults, but he couldn't do that in his home state because of age restrictions. "It was one of those crossroads in life you come to where you're going to have to make a commitment to something, whether it's your life or your kid's life," says Bickford. "And I felt the potential in our family lied in our ability to do what it took to advance the kid." They moved from California to Florida. Then they relocated to Pittsboro, Indiana, near Indianapolis in 1986 for two reasons. Open-wheel racing was very popular in the Midwest and there were a lot of race tracks in the area. In addition, Jeff could legally race sprint cars in Indiana with his parents' permission.
The rural Pittsboro was cheaper than Indy, and the family was near the chassis builders and many racetracks. His step-father gave up his small manufacturing business in California in the hopes that Jeff could become a champion racer.
After moving to Indiana, things were far from easy. In an interview with Newsweek, his step-father said that the family "slept in pick-up trucks and made our own parts. That's why I think Jeff is misunderstood by people who think he was born to rich parents and had a silver spoon in his mouth."
Jeff joined the United States Auto Club (USAC) at 16 and was the youngest person to ever get a license with the group. Jeff won 3 sprint car track championships before he was old enough to get a drivers license. In the late-80's, he ventured over to Australia and New Zealand to compete in sprint car races on foreign soil. He was the 1989 USAC Midget Rookie of the Year.
He went to Tri-West High School in nearby Lizton, Indiana (where he was voted prom king) and graduated in 1989. The day of his graduation, he got his diploma and quickly changed into his racing gear for a dirt track race in Bloomington that night. He joined the cross country track team in high school to stay in shape for racing. Often, he'd leave school early (or skip it entirely) on Fridays in favor of travel to tracks like Eldora and Winchester. By the time he graduated, he'd already won over 100 races. He won the USAC Midget championship in 1990. That year, Jeff ran 21 USAC Midget Car races. He was the fastest qualifier 10 times, won nine races and at age 19 became the youngest Midget class champion ever. The next year he moved up to USAC's Silver Crown Division (the cars are similar to Midgets and Sprints but are a lot bigger), and at 20 he became the youngest driver to ever win that championship. He won the USAC midget title in 1990 and his father suggested that Jeff go to Rockingham, North Carolina and attend the Buck Baker driving school. Not for sprint cars, but NASCAR stock cars. ESPN taped a story about Jeff's experience there and in return, Baker would teach Gordon free of charge. After taking his first lap in a stock car, Jeff realized that those were the cars he wanted to race... as long as he was racing.
His breakthrough year was probably 1991 when he won the coveted USAC Silver Crown title and, in a year of frenzied racing, moved up to Busch Grand National competition driving the #1 Carolina Ford owned by Bill Davis and won rookie of the year honors. The car was sponsored by Baby Ruth in 1992 in Busch racing and Jeff captured a NASCAR record 11 pole positions that year. Winston Cup car owner Rick Hendrick noticed Gordon driving an extremely loose race car around Atlanta Motor Speedway that year. He waited for the driver to lose control and wreck but the driver went on the win the race. Hendrick immediately asked who the driver was and was told that it was "that Gordon kid."
Hendrick told his general manager, Jimmy Johnson, to sign the kid to a Winston Cup contract, whatever it took. In 1992, he signed with Hendrick Motorsports to drive for car owner Rick Hendrick. However, car owner Bill Davis expected Jeff to drive for him when his team moved up to Winston Cup. Rather than jump to Winston Cup competiton with an average team that might not be strong enough to qualify every weekend owned by Bill Davis, Jeff signed the deal of a lifetime putting him into the elite circle of NASCAR teams. At the age of 21, he ran the final race of the 1992 season at Atlanta. He came out strong in 1993, winning the Gatorade 125-mile Qualifying race for the Daytona 500. He noticed Miss Winston, Brooke Sealy, in Victory Lane that day. They married in 1994 and lived in Huntersville, North Carolina until 1998 when they moved to Highland Beach, Florida.
Jeff won the Maxx Race Cards Rookie of the Year award in 1993 and finished second in NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Jeff finished 14th in the final points standings his first year and hoped to move into the top 10 in points in 1994.
He won the Busch Clash in 1994 and registered his first Winston Cup points win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Worldwide attention was thrust upon Jeff when he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in August 1994. He finished the 1994 season eighth in the points standings. Despite the improvement, hardly anyone was prepared for the events of 1995.
Jeff had a dream season in 1995 en route to his first Winston Cup title. After a disappointing Daytona 500, the team rebounded with a wins at Rockingham, Atlanta, and Bristol in the first six races. Jeff proved he was more than just a superspeedway racer by winning on the challenging half-mile of Bristol. On the road to the title, he won the Pepsi 400 at Daytona and followed that up with a win the following week on the Loudon, New Hampshire one-mile oval. Instead of cracking under pressure late in the season, Jeff attacked the races and won the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and the MBNA 500 at Dover, Delaware's maddening one-mile oval in September which propelled him to a 300 point lead over Dale Earnhardt. With seven victories, he coasted to the championship at Atlanta and was the toast of New York City in December 1995 at the NASCAR Awards Banquet. Jeff finished 1995 with a new outlook on his career. He was not the 'star of the future' anymore but a proven champion. In addition, he asked his parents to give up their role as his managers. He hired Bob Brannan in May of 1995 to manage his business affairs. His parents, who led him to the doorstep of Winston Cup competition were on the outside looking in at that time.
The 1996 season got off to a rocky start with last place finishes at Daytona and Rockingham. However, Jeff bounced back in week 3 with a win at Richmond which set the tone for the rest of the season. He won often and on some of the circuit's toughest tracks. Jeff won the Trans-South Financial 400 at Darlington and followed that up with a win the next weekend at Bristol in a rain shortened affair. In June, he won at Dover and Pocono, two of the circuit's most challenging tracks. Jeff notched a win in the DieHard 500 at Talladega in July but it was overshadowed by a spectacular crash ignited when Ernie Irvan tapped Sterling Marlin. However, inconsistency hurt him throughout the year. A wreck at Talladega, engine trouble at Louden, and a cut tire at Indianapolis made the climb to the championship a tougher climb than 1995. He rebounded in September with wins at Darlington, Dover, and Martinsville, and he won the final NASCAR race at the famed North Wilkesboro Speedway. However, the engine faltered at Charlotte and his title hopes were dashed as team mate Terry Labonte put together a string of consistent finishes to take the title. Nevertheless, a ten win season is something most drivers will never achieve and is a remarkable accomplishment in the modern era of NASCAR racing.
The 1997 season began with Jeff signing a deal with Pepsi to become his associate sponsor. Jeff kicked off the racing season by winning the Busch Clash and the Daytona 500 during Daytona's Speedweeks. He appeared on the 'Late Show with David Letterman' after the 500 and followed that frenzied week with a win at Rockingham. After a few inconsistent weeks, Jeff rebounded with a win in the Food City 500 at Bristol highlighted by a last lap pass of race leader Rusty Wallace. Gordon dominated the following week at Martinsville as he captured the Goody's 500. Heading into the Winston Select and the Coca-Cola 600 in May, the team wanted to run well at Charlotte after disappointing results at the track in 1996. Jeff won the Winston Select all star race as he dominated the final segment of the race, he won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600, and he capped off a successful two weeks at the track with a victory in a shortened Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. In June, he won the Pocono 500 at Pocono Raceway becoming only the third driver to win back to back June races at Pocono. Later in June, he won the inaugural race at California Speedway running out of gas just as he took the checkered flag. Jeff won his first career road course race as he took the checkered flag at Watkins Glen in August. On Labor Day weekend, he became only the second driver in NASCAR history to win the 'Winston Million' as he won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. In addition, he became the only driver to win the event three years in a row. After a win at New Hampshire, Jeff was inconsistent the rest of the way but hung on to win the Winston Cup title by 14 points over Dale Jarrett in Atlanta with a 17th place finish.
The 1998 season started with Pepsi kicking their Jeff Gordon advertising campaign into high gear with a commercial during the Super Bowl. Jeff started the season with another trip to New York for a guest appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman." He won at Rockingham but struggled in 3 of the first 5 races of the season before rebounding with a win at Bristol. After running strong at the Winston, he ran out of gas on the last lap but rebounded with a win in the Coca Cola 600 in late May. After a crash at Richmond in early June, Gordon put together a string of solid finishes that culminated with a victory in late June at Sears Point in his native northern California. After winning at Pocono in July, Gordon announced his plans to form a Busch Grand National team with his crew chief, Ray Evernham. Gordon-Evernham Motorsports will debut on the Busch circuit in 1999 with Gordon driving in 5 races for the team. In August, Gordon won the Brickyard 400 and became the first NASCAR driver to win twice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The $1.6 million payday was the largest ever for a motorsports event, due in part to a $1,000,000 bonus for winning a race in the No Bull Five. He followed that up with wins at Watkins Glen and Michigan tying the record for consecutive wins in the modern era of Winston Cup racing. In September, he won his fourth consecutive Southern 500 and another $1,000,000 at Darlington. He won the inaugural running of the Pepsi 400 under the lights at Daytona and wrapped up the season by winning his second consecutive Winston Cup title.
Gordon started off 1999 with a bang by winning the Daytona 500 from the pole position holding off Dale Earnhardt in the closing laps. In early March, he debuted his new Busch Grand National team at Las Vegas. The first race for the Pepsi Chevrolet BGN team was a solid fourth place effort. In Gordon's sixth Busch event of the season, Gordon posted a win at Phoenix. Gordon's Winston Cup season was a year of transition. He posted seven victories, including the aforementioned victory at Daytona, but also had 7 DNF's. Inconsistency, coupled with the departure of longtime crew chief Ray Evernham in mid-September, relegated Gordon to 6th in the final points standings.
The 2000 season began with a new crew chief in Robbie Loomis and a new pit crew. The DuPont team struggled from the outset with poor finishes at Daytona, Las Vegas, and Texas. The team also uncharacteristically struggled at places they had come to dominate- Darlington, Pocono, and Martinsville. After claiming his 50th career win at Talladega in April, the pieces began coming together. Gordon made a major announcement in May at Charlotte in which DuPont would remain as the team's primary sponsor through 2006. A victory at Sears Point in June was a boon to the team's confidence. However, a four race stretch in August in which Gordon failed to produce a top 20 finish was the low point. September brought renewed enthusiasm after a victory at Richmond and Gordon closed the year with ten top 10 finishes in the final eleven races. The team concluded the 2000 season in better shape than they had concluded 1999. The building blocks for a title run in 2001 were firmly in place.
Focused on a title run, the 2001 season got off to a tragic start with the death of Dale Earnhardt in the season-opening Daytona 500. Gordon rebounded from a 30th place finish at Daytona with a third place finish at Rockingham and a victory at Las Vegas. A runner-up finish at Atlanta entrenched Gordon firmly in the title hunt for the season. As spring gave way to summer, Gordon won The Winston (in a back-up car), dominated and won at Dover, and drove to victory at Michigan. A 37th place finish at Daytona and 17th at Chicago closed the points gap, but Gordon took a commanding lead with August victories at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen. Four top 10 finishes in the next five races followed before a victory in the inaugural race at Kansas Speedway in late September. Though Gordon didn't post a top five finish for the remainder of the season following the Kansas win, his challengers could not make strides toward catching him in the standings. He wrapped up his fourth Winston Cup championship with a sixth place finish at Atlanta.
Gordon began 2002 with a special paint scheme in recognition of DuPont's 200th Anniversary. He won the 125-mile Qualifying race at Daytona but an ill-advised block on Sterling Marlin late in the Daytona 500 sent him spinning through the grass. He started the season rather sluggish as he failed to post a top-five finish through the first six races. During the Darlington race weekend in March, it was announced that Brooke Gordon had filed for divorce from her husband. With his off-track life becoming fodder for shady news-magazine shows, Gordon remained focused on his raceteam. After an uncharacteristic spin at Bristol, he bounced back the following week with a second-place finish at Texas. Five straight top-tens from mid-May thru mid-June got him back into title contention. However, a broken gear at Sonoma and a flat tire at Daytona in July put him behind once again. As the summer progressed, Gordon finally scored a victory with a bump pass on Rusty Wallace at Bristol. He won again the following weekend at Darlington and picked up a victory in Kansas in late September. However, inconsistency lingered. Crashes at Dover and Martinsville, along with a blown engine at Talladega crippled his title hopes for 2002. He concluded the season with four straight top-six finishes and finished fourth in the final point standings. Following the season, Gordon joined his teammate Jimmie Johnson and MotoCross ace Colin Edwards to represent the USA in the Nations Cup-- an annual rally-sprint style event off the coast of Morocco. The trio captured the coveted trophy as Gordon ended his racing season with a victory of a different sort.
The 2003 season began with Gordon hosting "Saturday Night Live." It was the first time a NASCAR driver had been asked to host the late night show on NBC. He performed in several skits, most notably as a fighter pilot on 'Career Day,' a snake handler, a waiter with a short fuse, and Rickeye Funk. The racing season began with a 12th place finish in the rain-shortened Daytona 500. A spin at Rockingham and a wreck at Las Vegas set him back to 20th in the points standings after three events. However, a strong runner-up finish at Atlanta provided the momentum for Gordon to score five top-ten finishes in the next six races. The stretch was highlighted by a dominating victory at Martinsville Speedway. Top-five finishes at Dover, Michigan, Sonoma, and Chicago pushed him up to second in the series standings. One of the highlights of Gordon's year was a midweek visit to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway in June. He traded cars with Formuala One driver Juan Pablo Montoya and was able to turn about 10 laps on the Indy road course in the F1 car. His speed was just a second off making the field in the most recent F1 race at the track. Back in the NASCAR world, just when he looked to be in position to make a run on Matt Kenseth for the points lead, the roof caved in on his season during a disasterous seven week stretch from mid-July through early September. A 24th place effort at Loudon was followed by a wreck at Pocono. A brief respite came with a fourth place effort at Indianapolis, but darker days were ahead. After running out of gas on the last lap at Watkins Glen, Gordon tried to coast to the finish line to finish third. Kevin Harvick came off the final turn and hit the rear of Gordon's car sending him spinning into the inside guardrail. Unable to restart the car due to the fuel issue, he was credited with a 33rd place finish. A week later, an ill-timed caution flag trapped him a lap down and resulted in a 30th place finish at Michigan. Wrecks at Bristol and Darlington closed out one of the worst summers of Gordon's racing career. Late September brought a rebirth of sorts as he put together five straight fifth place finishes. He won again at Martinsville in dominating fashion, and followed that up with a victory at Atlanta. He closed the season with eight top-ten finishes in the final nine races. For the second straight season he posted three wins and was fourth in the points standings.
Gordon's 2004 season could be considered a championship season. After all, he did accumulate the most points in the 36-race season. But, in 2004, the "Chase For The Cup" put a premium on the final ten races of the season. Kurt Busch combined a victory at Loudon with consistent finishes to capture the championship. Gordon came up 16 points short in the final "chase" total. Victories at Talladega, Daytona, Sonoma, California, and Indianapolis thrust Gordon into title contention during the summer. Gordon held the points lead after the 26th race when the standings were reset. In the final ten races, Gordon struggled at Talladega, Kansas, and Atlanta. He was unable to overcome those performances to capture his fifth title. Though, considering the events of October 24, just being on the track at Atlanta was an accomplishment.
On October 24, a Hendrick Motorsports-owned airplane crashed on its way to the track in Martinsville, Virginia. All ten people on board were killed, including HMS engine builder Randy Dorton, HMS President John Hendrick, HMS Vice President Jeff Turner, and 24-year-old Ricky Hendrick. The loss was simply immeasurable. Some called it the worst tragedy in the history of motorsports. When Jimmie Johnson pulled into victory lane at Atlanta-- just one week after the tragedy-- the entire HMS family celebrated with him in victory lane. On the surface, the victory was meaningless. It didn't undo what occurred, and it didn't make the hurt go away. But for one late October afternoon, it was time to race on. Not because they wanted to, but because they had to. The Hendrick teams didn't come away with a championship in the NASCAR race in 2004, but they were the ultimate champions in the human race. In the end, that's what matters most.