Jeff Gordon retired from his 22-year racing career in 2015, leaving thousands of fans reminiscing about his illustrious time on the track. Now that we've reached the 20th anniversary of his first Daytona 500 victory, let's reminisce some more.
After winning his first NASCAR Cup Series championship at the age of 23 in 1995, the racing world knew that he was destined for greatness. Two years later he would become the youngest winner at Daytona, the "Super Bowl" event of stock car racing. Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports car would record an average speed in excess of 148 miles per hour, and his teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven would finish just behind him in second and third place respectively. The win would propel Gordon to more greatness the following week at Rockingham and then got his third win of the year at Bristol.
For those who don't know, the Daytona 500 is LITERALLY 500 miles long. It has been the season-opening race of the Cup series since 1982 and is thought to be the most prestigious race on the calendar. Since 1995, TV ratings have been the highest for any auto race throughout the year—even better than the Indy 500.
The first 500-mile version of the race was held at Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Prior to that, the event was featured as a 200-mile race. The 500 miles require 200 laps to complete, most years. It has been shortened due to rain, but this has only occurred four times over the years (1965, 1966, 2003 and 2009). It has also gone past 500 miles on seven occasions recently, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2015.
While Jeff Gordon won the race three times as a driver and twice as an owner, the all-time record goes to Richard Petty. He won the title seven times as a driver and once as an owner. His lone victory as owner took place during his driving career, making him the only person to boost such an achievement.
Although Jeff Gordon struggled later in his career, his performance in 1997 was one of the greatest in racing history. On top of his early season victories, he went on to claim his second Winston Cup championship that year, capping one of the greatest single-season performances in NASCAR history. He would ultimately become the third driver to win four Cup championships in the sport's history.
In 2000, Gordon signed a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports and became an equity owner. His contributions to both the company, and NASCAR as a whole, have been very immense. This is evidenced in ESPN's seemingly nonstop coverage of NASCAR year round.