First Win Propelled Gordon To Stardom
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A wispy moustache and a Gatorade 125 win defined Jeff Gordon’s rookie season in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Gordon wanted to be known for more than a qualifying race, some facial hair and a rookie of the year title when 1994 rolled around.
Freshly shaven and still just 22, Gordon had two Nationwide Series – then Busch Grand National Series – wins and a Cup pole at Charlotte Motor Speedway when the series arrived there in May. He’d wrecked himself out of the lead in the 1993 Winston Open at Charlotte, but turned it around and won the non-points race the week before the 1994 Coca-Cola 600.
All Gordon needed to validate his driving was a victory in a points-paying event. Just 41 races into his Cup career, Gordon was losing faith. He believed in his Hendrick Motorsports team. He just wasn’t sure of himself.
“I think at that point I lacked a little bit of confidence of whether I had what it took to not just run 600 miles at Charlotte, but to get a Cup car into Victory Lane,” Gordon said.
“I felt like we were getting closer and closer. Even when you get close, you’re like, ‘Yeah, but it’s not a win.’”
A late two-tire pit stop call from crew chief Ray Evernham made the difference for Gordon. Running second to Rusty Wallace, Gordon felt like he had a shot at winning if pit strategy put him in front.
Something just felt right about the whole race, Gordon said. He stayed patient in the first 500 miles and didn’t push the issue.
“I definitely had confidence from previous history heading into that 600,” Gordon said. “The car was great that weekend. It gave me good confidence to know that we had a shot at winning.”
Gordon’s biggest obstacle in the final laps wasn’t Wallace. Evernham’s call gave Gordon a sizable lead. All he had to do was overcome his emotions – which were making it tough to concentrate on driving. Still, Gordon found a way.
He won the race and set off a career that includes 88 Sprint Cup wins and four series championships.
May 29 marks the 20-year anniversary of Gordon’s first win.
Charlotte Motor Speedway – Gordon’s adopted home track from the time he moved to the area from Indiana in the early 1990s – holds a special place in his heart.
“That track was always something from the first time I made laps around it,” Gordon said. “I enjoyed doing it. It was a fun, fast racetrack. I feel like it’s always been one of my better tracks.”
Charlotte accounts for five of Gordon’s 88 wins. He’s also won the All-Star Race three times. He spent years living down the road from the track, so it’s become a big part of Gordon’s career.
The memories of the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 still resonate with him as well.
Gordon went from idolizing and trying to mimic Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace to out-running them in short order.
No longer was Gordon the young kid who could do anything but win. The 600 victory put Gordon on the map for good.
“From that point on, it solidified our team and myself,” Gordon said.
“It gave me confidence that, ‘OK, I’ve got what it takes, we have what it takes, we can go win races,’ from that point on.”