An Unforgettable Night
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on May 23, 2014 | 9:57 A.M. EST
Jeff Gordon leads the field to the green flag to start the 1994 Coca-Cola 600, a race he would win for his first career Cup victory. (Photo: ISC Archives)
CONCORD, N.C. - The memory is of a tearful Jeff Gordon, voice shaky as he squeezes words between gasps of air after winning his first race in what would become the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
That the scene took place 20 years ago in the Coca-Cola 600 doesn’t seem possible. Does it?
“I still consider myself a kid, but I know I’m not,’’ the 42-year-old Gordon said. “Twenty years is amazing, and it really got started with this win.’’
Legacies have to start somewhere and for Gordon it was this race. What followed is a career highlighted by four championships and 89 victories after his most recent triumph earlier this month at Kansas Speedway.
Twenty years ago, though, Gordon was a driver full of potential. He had so much talent but had yet to win a points race entering the 1994 Memorial Day weekend race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Car owner Rick Hendrick gambled and put the youngster in a top-notch car in an era when young drivers had to prove themselves in inferior equipment before getting top rides.
Although he started on the pole, Gordon wasn’t the biggest story at the start of the race. John Andretti was. Andretti became the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day.
Gordon became the story that night.
“I’m speechless,’’ Gordon said sitting in his car in Victory Lane.
He paused to wipe his eyes.
“This is the greatest day of my life,’’ he said. “I don’t know what to say.’’
For many, that Victory Lane interview remains vivid, but Gordon sees more as he looks back.
Gordon admits he was crying in the car in the final laps.
“I tried to hold it back as much as I could because I wanted to stay focused and not make any mistakes,’’ Gordon said. “The chill in my spine was there when I took the white flag. When I got to Victory Lane, it just all kind of erupted.
“I think it was a combination of pure joy and accomplishment, the weight being taken off your shoulders because that first win you don’t know if you’re ever going to do it. When you finally do, you go, ‘Wow I’ve accomplished something that I never thought I would. Just being able to say, ‘Maybe I do belong here, maybe I do have what it takes.’ ‘’
Gordon carried that confidence to a win in the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway a couple of months later. That carried into the next season, which began Gordon’s run of three championships in four years.
Gordon admits, looking back, that Rusty Wallace had the best car that race. Wallace, one of five NASCAR Hall of Famers in that race, led 187 of the 400 laps and finished second.
The difference proved to be crew chief Ray Evernham’s decision to change only two tires instead of four on the final pit stop. That was an era when few made made such a call in that situation. The quicker stop got Gordon the lead and no one could catch him.
Gordon admits looking back he questioned Evernham’s call briefly and that changed when he found himself in the lead.
As Gordon watches highlights of that race, he chuckles at that last stop. Not because of the decision but what Gordon did.
“There was a pit road speed back then, but I’m not sure I was running it,’’ Gordon said with a smile.
It was easier to get away with speeding on pit road then because series officials randomly checked speeds via a stopwatch instead of by the current timing system.
“I don’t know if they had the watches on me,’’ Gordon said of that final pit stop, “but it looks like I was speeding.’’
As times change so does the sport. Gordon and Joe Nemechek are the only drivers from that 1994 Coca-Cola 600 still running the full Cup series. The question is for how much longer?
“How long am I’m going to do this, I have no idea,’’ Gordon said. “Five of six years ago, my back was hurting me and I was thinking this is probably coming to an end. I just was in pain in the car, and I wasn’t winning as much. Then, I started working on my back and I’ve got it so much better now. We’re competitive. The same criterium has always been there: Healthy, competitive and just enjoying what I’m doing.
“Right now I’m enjoying it as much as I’ve ever have. I’m not really thinking about what the next step, but don’t get me wrong over the last five or six years I’ve thought a lot about it, so it at least has come into my mind so I can think and plan a little bit for that day when it comes, but I’m not picking a day and saying this is it.’’