Idolizing and competing against a legend

LONG POND, PA - JUNE 05: Jimmie Johnson (left), driver of the #48 Lowe's/Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta/Penn State Chevrolet, talk on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400 at Pocono Raceway on June 5, 2015 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

LONG POND, PA – JUNE 05: Jimmie Johnson (left), driver of the #48 Lowe’s/Jimmie Johnson Foundation Chevrolet, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta/Penn State Chevrolet, talk on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 at Pocono Raceway on June 5, 2015 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

(This is the final story in a four-part series of first-person recollections honoring the legend that is Jeff Gordon. After a 23-year NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Gordon will end his record-making run as a full-time driver on Sunday, Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC), where Gordon will be one of the four drivers vying for this year’s championship. This series gives an insider’s perspective by those who have influenced – or been influenced by – the four-time series champion.)

I feel very fortunate to have been a fan of Jeff Gordon from the very beginning. He was somebody that I aspired to be. I watched him from his Midget and Sprint Car days all the way through, and when he hopped in that DuPont 24, it was much easier to follow him.

When you look at the doors that he has opened after his success, and owners thinking that drivers don’t have to come from the South or come from stock cars, you can also put a ton of credit for our sport’s growth on his shoulders. His rivalry with Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., and being so well-spoken and successful and at the peak of our sport … it all formed a perfect storm for NASCAR. Our sport was really becoming national, and finally getting the national media attention that it deserved.

I think, in some respects, he and (Earnhardt) knew they needed each other. I can remember the banquet where Earnhardt pulled out a glass of milk to toast him. I can remember some really hard-nosed racing. They knew that the rivalry they had on the track was something special and real — it wasn’t a fabricated one.

At the same time, from Jeff’s stories to me, he really admired Dale and looked up to Dale, not only for what he did in the car but the stuff off the track. Jeff was studying him and learning from him and making business decisions off of Earnhardt. There was a great deal of respect there.

As a fan and as a competitor, he’s been a lot of fun to watch and a lot of fun to race against. He’s been a great friend. He gave me my start. He was the driving force behind starting the fourth team (at Hendrick Motorsports) and putting me in that car. Through a few interactions at a test session and some racing, he saw something there … I still today can’t get it out of him, what he saw, and he still won’t take a lot of credit for recognizing it and giving me my start. But I’m still blown away.

Of course, whenever you’re talking about two competitors, it’s not always smooth. It’s like any relationship.

Through 2008, 2009, somewhere in there — maybe even 2010 — we had a couple of dust-ups on the track that led to some sit-down conversations with Mr. Hendrick and Jeff and I. Competition is a funny thing. I think it worked out for the best. One, Rick got us in line and, two, it helped us open a line of communication to talk and discuss things and to exist in our very complicated situation of he being an owner of the car, and the competitive desire for us to beat each other.

From my standpoint, it’s been an honor to race against a guy I’ve looked up to and idolized and tried to mimic his career path. And winning championships while racing against him were extremely gratifying moments. I’m sure they were the exact opposite on his side.

But to have that guy hand-pick me, and he was my hero, and then to beat him at Martinsville, where he was so good, with him trying to beat the bumper off the car and going to the finish line side-by-side – that was one of the proudest moments I’ve had behind the wheel.

Probably not his favorite moment, but it’s mine — because he’s Jeff Gordon.

As told to the NASCAR Wire Service’s Reid Spencer.

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