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Wednesday, August 15
Gordon opted for NASCAR over Indy
By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

In general terms, an athlete is affected by many variables -- perhaps more than any other occupation in life.

Sports is a case of "what if?" What if an athlete had done something differently? What if he or she tried a different tact?

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon chose to chase his racing dreams in NASCAR instead of open-wheel competition.

As I watched Jeff Gordon come from behind to earn a Winston Cup record seventh road course victory Sunday at Watkins Glen, N.Y., I was struck by several "what if" scenarios.

What if Gordon never made the jump to Winston Cup? What if he had thumbed his nose at NASCAR in favor of CART, IRL or Formula One? What would NASCAR be like without Gordon's championship skills, movie-star good lucks and Mr. Clean lifestyle? Who would have picked up the torch to become NASCAR's point man after Dale Earnhardt's death if Gordon hadn't been on the scene?

Think about that for a minute. Where would NASCAR be without Gordon?

To partly answer those questions, let's go back in time more than 10 years. Gordon had just won the USAC Midget crown in 1990, capping off a string that saw him win an incredible 500-plus short-track races before he reached 21.

To say the least, Gordon was in high demand, perhaps the most sought-after short-track driver in history. Bill Davis won the early bidding, signing Gordon to run a Busch car, with designs on going to Winston Cup. As it turned out, that's exactly what happened. Gordon won the Busch Rookie of the Year title for Davis in 1991 (while also winning the USAC Silver Crown title) and followed that with a record 11 victories in 1992. He was ready for the next step.

Enter renowned Winston Cup team owner Rick Hendrick, who hired both Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham away from Davis at the end of 1992. The threesome accounted for three Winston Cup titles and nearly 50 wins in their seven years together before Evernham left after the 1999 season to spearhead Dodge's return to Winston Cup in 2001.

But Gordon had another option before joining Davis' team, if he had chosen to accept it. Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss and eventual Indy Racing League founder Tony George coveted Gordon and wanted him to race at the Brickyard.

George's intentions were a no-brainer. Gordon had transplanted from his California birth place to his adopted home of Indiana, primarily to be based in the center of the short-track world. While he may have been spent his first years in the Golden State, Gordon had since become a Hoosier through-and-through, and his success behind the wheel had caught George's eye. As the number of U.S. drivers began to slowly erode in CART -- the only major open wheel body in the country at the time -- George salivated at the chance of getting Gordon into an open wheel car.

George waved dollars and sky-high promises in front of Gordon. The replanted Hoosier Hunk was mentioned in conversation as having the potential to become the next Andretti, Unser and Foyt, all in one. And while George was supposed to be neutral as a track owner and operator, he was Gordon's biggest supporter. He wanted the kid in the worst way.

Gordon has told the story several times over the years about how close he came to going with George, CART and open wheel racing. But thankfully for him -- and for NASCAR and its fans -- along came David, and then Hendrick.

Timing is everything in racing, and Gordon's timing was impeccable. Winston Cup in the early 1990s was just starting its cycle toward becoming the most popular form of motorsports in this country. It was gearing up for big dollar television contracts, almost yearly expansion of its schedule, new state-of-the-art racing palaces, unprecedented corporate involvement and millions of sponsorship dollars flying into the coffers of both teams and NASCAR.

With all that staring Gordon in the face, George was able to promise only one major thing: the chance for Gordon to race in the Indianapolis 500. Do you think it was a difficult choice for a then-21-year-old Californian transplant?

So long Indiana, hello Charlotte, N.C.

But for argument's sake, let's consider what might have happened if Gordon had said 'No thanks' to Davis, Hendrick and NASCAR. Where would he be now?

First of all, there's no doubt in my mind that had he stayed in open wheel competition, Gordon would have gone on to earn at least two or three Indianapolis 500 victories. He likely would have won at least a couple of CART championships, as well. Or, feeling a sense of loyalty to George, Gordon may have jumped ship from CART to the George's still-fledgling IRL, where he likely would have been its biggest (and sole) superstar today.

While no one man can make or break a racing series like CART or IRL, having a driver like Gordon would have either much stronger -- and likely more popular -- than they are today. Instead, they are a pair of decaying circuits, mired in hostility, bickering and poor leadership that is effectively killing open wheel racing in the U.S. -- if they haven't done so already.

There's no doubt Gordon had the promise to turn open wheel racing on its ear. He truly had the potential to become the next Andretti, Unser or Foyt. He had the potential to become one of the greatest open wheel drivers of all time. He had the marketability, charm and popularity to take Indy racing to unprecedented levels. Even potential opposing team owners and drivers in CART would have been eager to see a driver of Gordon's caliber join the series way back when.

But after much hand wringing, discussion with his family and soon-to-be wife Brooke, Gordon let out a huge sigh and signed on the dotted line with Davis and NASCAR. The rest is history.

I fondly look back to the late 1980s when I first became aware of Gordon and his incredible ability. I remember watching him compete at Indianapolis Raceway Park. I recall the incredible fan following this "mere" short-track driver had amassed -- with millions more Gordon supporters still to come on the NASCAR circuit.

Without question, Gordon was destined to become a star. He was preordained for greatness, for championships and for many victories. He may ultimately wind up the greatest U.S.-born driver of all-time when his career is finally over -- maybe in another 20 years.

I can hear Gordon's current competitors groan in unison at that thought. And now, more than 10 years later, I can also hear George and CART cursing their bad luck at failing to woo Gordon to their side of the racing fence.

While NASCAR collectively says "Hot damn, we've got Gordon, and we're never giving him back," George, CART and the IRL can only say in somber resignation, "What if we had Gordon?"

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.

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