By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
Jeff Gordon was born in Vallejo, Calif., then moved with his family as a teenager to Pittsboro, Ind., to pursue his racing career. But it was down South where Gordon had some of the milestone events of his racing career.
Most everyone who follows auto racing knows that it was at Atlanta Motor Speedway 20 years ago that Gordon made his first start in the series now known as Sprint Cup. That was in the 1992 Hooters 500, Richard Petty’s last as a driver and one that saw a dramatic end to the championship battle, as Alan Kulwicki finished second in the race but beat race winner Bill Elliott for the title because he led one more lap, and those bonus points for leading the most laps were the difference in the championship.
Many also know that it was at Atlanta where Gordon got his first major NASCAR victory, earlier in 1992 in the series now known as Nationwide. He also got his first-ever top-five finish in NASCAR at a small short track north of Atlanta, Lanier Raceway in Braselton, Ga., in a race for the series now known as Nationwide.
Before that, he made his first start in a sprint car at a dirt track near Jacksonville, Fla., and really got going in sprint cars in the 1985 Winternationals at East Bay Raceway near Tampa.
Gordon said his first sprint car start wasn’t an indication of what his racing future held.
“It went terrible,” he said. Then he traveled across Florida to East Bay, another track where 15-year-old drivers like he was at that time were allowed to compete.
“It was a track very capable of us getting good laps and getting my feet wet in the sprint car,” he said. “By the last night we were moving along pretty good.”
And that’s impressive given the fact that the starting fields included sprint car legends like Dave Blaney, Doug Wolfgang, Jack Hewitt, Steve Kinser and Kelly Kinser, although Gordon said he wasn’t really focusing on them at the time.
“I was a long way from competing with them,” he said.
By the time he joined NASCAR’s Busch Series, now known as Nationwide, he had become a much better driver.
He said his first NASCAR win, at Atlanta in a Baby Ruth-sponsored Ford, wasn’t an upset by any means.
“It was my second year driving for Bill Davis,” he said. “We came off a year where we ran good but were missing a little something. But we came out guns loaded in ’92. We had some new power and a new body style.
“We came into Atlanta and just flew. It was an incredible day. We were fast in practice, sat on the pole.”
But that race was no cakewalk, even though he led 103 of 197 laps.
“We had Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, a bunch of heavy hitters in that race, not to mention the Nationwide or Busch Series guys.”
And Gordon had several issues to overcome, including running out of fuel at one point.
“We had to come from behind to get back to the front,” he said.
Gordon also has fond memories of his days running at Lanier, a 3/8-mile oval track across Ga. Highway 53 from Road Atlanta.
It was at Lanier in 1991 that he got his first top-five finish in NASCAR.
He started third and ran second to David Green.
“We were in a pretty heated battle with David for Rookie of the Year,” Gordon said. “He got a win, and we didn’t.
“He had us covered that night at Lanier.”
Then in 1992, he dominated the early portions of the Lanier race, leading the first 177 laps from the pole before being derailed by a mechanical issue.
“I remember that race very specifically,” he said. “We started on the pole, were very fast and were leading and had a problem with the bolt that holds on the air cleaner.”
The stud that held the air cleaner to the carburetor broke off and caused Gordon’s throttle to begin sticking. He made a pit stop and his team removed the air cleaner and sent him back on the track. NASCAR officials did not approve of the stop-gap measure.
“They penalized me and made me come back in and fix it,” Gordon said.
Bobby Labonte wound up winning, while Gordon recovered to finish 10th.
“I always liked Lanier,” Gordon said. “I raced there one time in a Midget and ran good.”
Atlanta’s big track also has been good to Gordon. He’s won there five times and finished second in the most recent race.