Open wheel's loss is NASCAR's gain

Where would NASCAR be today without Jeff Gordon?

Gordon came so close to taking a different path in his racing career. Had just one CART team owner in the early 1990s had the sense to say yes, Gordon probably never would have sat in a stock car.

But no one in open wheel gave him a chance. Gordon and his parents had no money to bring to the table, so the Indy car teams told him to move on down the road.

That one decision changed so much in American racing. NASCAR gained a superstar, a transforming icon for the sport.

Indy car racing lost a driver who might have become its biggest star since A.J. Foyt. It's a stretch to say Gordon could have saved open wheel from its destructive civil war, but his presence would have lessened the damage.

It wasn't to be. Open wheel burned while NASCAR boomed, and Gordon's success was a major part of its growth.

"As a kid growing up, I always dreamed about racing at Indy," Gordon said Tuesday. "I thought those dreams had gone away when I moved down south and started my NASCAR career."

How ironic that Gordon's legacy will include his brilliance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was the first NASCAR winner at Indy in 1994, two days after he turned 23.

Maybe he could have won the Indy 500 at 23, but the Brickyard became his house anyway.

He has won four times on those hallowed grounds in the No. 24 Chevy, doing in a stock car the same thing that made legends of Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in Indy cars.

Gordon has a chance to top them all and share the record with a man who also didn't race an Indy car at the Brickyard. A victory by Gordon in the Allstate 400 on Sunday would tie him with Formula One's Michael Schumacher for the most wins on the historic 2.5-mile rectangle. Schumacher won the U.S. Grand Prix five times between 2000 and 2006.

Gordon spent his teenage years only 12 miles from the IMS gates. His mother and stepfather moved from Vallejo, Calif., to Pittsboro, Ind., so Gordon would have a better opportunity to advance his racing career and make it to the Brickyard one day and race in the Indy 500.

But our path in life often takes us somewhere we never expect to go. Gordon became a four-time Cup champion. He's a serious contender to win another title this year at age 38. His birthday is Aug. 4.

The Indy 500? It didn't happen, and Gordon says it's unlikely to happen now. It's too late.

"If that opportunity had come earlier in my career, I would have jumped on it," Gordon said. "But now I've been embedded in NASCAR for so long, it is just not me."

No full-time NASCAR driver can do it now. The start time of the Indy 500 moved to an hour later than it used to be, making it almost impossible to race the 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on the same day.

Even if that situation changed, Gordon's answer still would be no.

"I'm just not the kind of guy that gets in something and just wants to drive around for fun," Gordon said. "And doing 230 miles an hour at Indy, I'm pretty sure that's going to get your attention, and not every lap is fun.

"I respect far too greatly what it takes to not only drive those [Indy] cars around Indianapolis for one lap, but to prepare well enough to compete."

But the allure of the Indy 500 remains for Gordon. He won't rule it out entirely, thinking he might compete in that race when his Cup career is over.

"That's the only way I could ever see that happening," he said. "If I was able to spend a quality amount of time with a quality team."

How fitting that would be: the man who never got the chance to race in his dream event ending his career with an Indy 500 appearance.

Gordon is the big fish who got away for Indy car. And he's the whopper who changed NASCAR. Where would it be had he never come?

"Well, I would have been out of luck, that's for sure," said Ray Evernham, who guided Gordon as his crew chief for three of those championship seasons. "He was a prodigy. It's truly amazing what he accomplished at such a young age."

His accomplishments go far beyond winning races.

You never can say who is the greatest in any major sport. But I will say this: Jeff should be mentioned as one of the top five drivers for what he's meant to NASCAR.

-- Ray Evernham

"When Jeff came along, NASCAR still was pretty much a regional sport in the Southeast," Evernham said. "But Jeff broke that mold of cowboy boots and Southern guys.

"He brought in so many new fans. He helped NASCAR become mainstream. Jeff brought a younger influence and more of a hip audience to the sport."

That didn't sit well with many traditional NASCAR fans. He was the outsider who didn't belong, the challenger to Dale Earnhardt's greatness.

Earnhardt was the blue-collar guy from North Carolina, the hero of the common man. Gordon was the polished pretty boy who looked more like a figure skater than a NASCAR driver.

And the old-school fans hated him for it, booing him at every opportunity. That feeling has waned in recent years. Even the hard-liners now respect his skills as a driver.

Those who were there from the beginning understand how lucky NASCAR is to have him.

"If Jeff hadn't been there when we lost Dale Earnhardt [in 2001], I'm not sure where we would be as a sport," said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, who was a public relations person at Lowe's Motor Speedway when Gordon came to NASCAR. "Jeff was a vital bridge, a passing of the torch from Petty to Earnhardt to Gordon."

Gossage and Evernham also believe Gordon's success made it easier for talented drivers across the country to reach the Cup level.

"So many guys owe Jeff," Evernham said. "Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, even Tony Stewart should thank Gordon for opening that door."

Three-time champion Jimmie Johnson knows his success is directly tied to Gordon, the man who helped persuade team owner Rick Hendrick to give Johnson a shot.

"Jeff has obviously been a big part of my career," Johnson said. "He's an unbelievable race car driver, a great teammate and a close friend. I go to Jeff for advice on a lot of things, not just related to racing."

The man Earnhardt dubbed "the Wonder Boy" now is the sage of the sport.

Earnhardt thrived off the rivalry with Gordon and loved to tease him. But Earnhardt also knew a great driver when he saw one, and he respected Gordon.

No one respects him more than Evernham. The Rainbow Warriors team they built together will go down as one of NASCAR's best.

"Throughout history, NASCAR has had its building blocks," Evernham said. "The France family, the Pettys, Junior Johnson, Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

"You never can say who is the greatest in any major sport. But I will say this: Jeff should be mentioned as one of the top five drivers for what he's meant to NASCAR."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.