If anyone should be saying, "I want respect, and I want people to think I've got talent," it's Britney Spears, not an athlete who had just cemented his position at his sport's apex. Still, there was Jeff Gordon on Sunday, having wrapped up his fourth Winston Cup title, trying to convince folks that he really is a good driver.
Gordon, who clinched the championship with a sixth-place finish in the NAPA 500, won his first three titles, in 1995, '97 and '98, for Hendrick Motorsports with the estimable Ray Evernham as his crew chief. Gordon's detractors—and he has plenty—attributed his early success to his owner and his crew. The critics seemed to have been proved right after Evernham left Gordon following the '99 season; Gordon languished for much of 2000, finishing ninth overall. This season, though, he got back on track with six wins.
Gordon has suffered in the eyes of stock car racing's die-hard fans because of his combination of wholesomeness and instant success. Those things may appeal to sponsors and casual followers, but they're a turnoff to NASCAR enthusiasts, who go for the rougher-hewn characters with attitude. Dale Earnhardt was known as the Intimidator; the boyish Gordon, who looks as though he has neither the inclination nor the biceps to start trouble, is known as the Kid.
Not loving Gordon is one thing. Not respecting him is another, more ridiculous thing. The Kid turned 30 in August, capping one of the most remarkable decades the sport has seen. He won 55 races over that span, more than any other driver, and he did so at a time of life when drivers are supposed to be learning, not winning. Six men besides Gordon have won at least three Winston Cup tides, and of that sextet's 26 tides, 24 came after the drivers had turned 30. (Of that group, only Earnhardt and Richard Petty won championships before reaching 30.)
So as Gordon enters what figures to be the prime of his career, he's already halfway to the eight tides he'll need to break the record held by Earnhardt and Petty. Surpassing those icons might not be a popular feat, but one thing is clear: Gordon has the talent to pull it off.