Jeff Gordon has transformed the face of Nascar, but early on in his career few predicted he would reach such meteoric success. Despite spending 22 years driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon didn’t begin his career in the iconic #24 DuPont Chevy–he started out racing Busch Series Fords for Bill Davis Racing.
Jeff never planned to race for Rick Hendrick–he had a solid foundation with Davis’s team and his crew chief Ray Evernham. Bill Davis originally planned to keep Gordon in the Busch Series in 1992 and move him up to the Winston Cup the following year. The team was a relative newcomer to the sport; it had only gone full-time in 1991, and did not have operations in the Cup Series. The original plan was to build around Gordon’s Cup Series ride and eventually transform the operation into the flagship Ford team. Unfortunately for BDR, the plan never materialized.
Gordon was fielding many offers during the 1992 Busch Series season. In addition to Bill Davis, legendary owner Jack Roush wanted Gordon to drive for him in the Winston Cup. Gordon’s interest was piqued–however, the deal fell through when Roush refused to hire Ray Evernham as his crew chief. Gordon and Evernham had a very successful partnership in the Busch Series, and Jeff wanted to keep it going in the Winston Cup. After talks broke down, another owner began looking into signing Gordon–Rick Hendrick. In 1992, Hendrick Motorsports was not the juggernaut it is today. Although it had signed several successful drivers such as Geoff Bodine, Tim Richmond, and Darrell Waltrip the organization was still searching for its first championship, and was known as a solid, if unspectacular team. When Hendrick first saw Gordon, however, he thought Jeff might be the driver to put his team over the top.
Hendrick hadn’t heard much about Jeff until the 1992 Busch Series Atlanta 300. Walking into the press box halfway through the race, Hendrick noticed one white car slipping and sliding through the turns as he fought Dale Jarrett for the lead. Hendrick remarked that the car was too loose and the driver would crash within a few laps. Gordon never did–he took the lead from Jarrett and never looked back. At the end of the race an incredulous Rick Hendrick turned to the man next to him and asked who the winning driver was. “That’s Jeff Gordon,” the man answered. Hendrick signed Gordon to his Winston Cup team two days later.
Hendrick lured Gordon away from Ford and Bill Davis by promising more pay, higher quality equipment, and unlike Roush, a chance to to keep crew chief Ray Evernham on board. Roush experienced solid success in the 1990’s and 2000’s with Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, and Matt Kenseth, but never matched Gordon’s dominance. Bill Davis did move up to the Winston Cup Series in 1993, fielding rookie Booby Labonte, but the team never achieved success and disbanded in 2009. Gordon signed with Hendrick’s Cup team after the fourth race of the 1992 Busch Series, but didn’t race for him until the final race of the season, the 1992 Hooters 500. That historic event is remembered for being Richard Petty’s final race–however, it was just the beginning of Jeff Gordon’s long and successful career.