For most star athletes, landing a job in the broadcasting booth after retirement is a destination job.
Over the years, some have even retired earlier than expected simply because they knew they could head to the booth and make millions of dollars simply talking about their sport.
But for this NASCAR legend, his broadcasting career was merely a stepping stone, and now that it’s over he’s on to bigger and better things.
From the moment Jeff Gordon entered the NASCAR Cup Series full-time in 1993, he started making waves.
He quickly established himself as one of the top drivers in the sport, which in the eyes of many fans, instantly made him a threat to Dale Earnhardt Sr.
It obviously didn’t help that he was driving a bright, rainbow colored #24 for Hendrick Motorsports, or that he didn’t have the same southern drawl most fans had come to expect from the best in the sport, but make no mistake, it was his talent that rubbed most fans the wrong way.
In their eyes, NASCAR was Earnhardt’s kingdom, and Gordon was just a pretender to the throne who’d never had grease under his fingernails a day in his life.
Gordon wasn’t the guy you’d go have a beer with – if anything, he was the guy you worried might pull up in an expensive car and ride away with your girlfriend.
But as time went on, he earned the respect of NASCAR fans, and he and Earnhardt worked hand-in-hand to elevate the sport to new heights many never thought it would reach.
Earnhardt brought the common man, but it was Gordon who ultimately brought corporate America to NASCAR and helped turn the sport into the multi-billion dollar per year industry that it is today.
And he did it all while winning four championships and 93 races over his 24-year-career with Hendrick Motorsports.
After retiring from the sport at the end of the 2015 season, Gordon jumped at the opportunity to head into the Fox Sports booth for a coveted role on the lead NASCAR broadcast team alongside fellow NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip.
But after six seasons as one of the primary voices of NASCAR on television, that chapter of Gordon’s journey is coming to a close, as he is stepping down from a position many would love to have for an even bigger opportunity and responsibility.
Earlier this week, Hendrick Motorsports announced that on January 1, 2022, Jeff Gordon will assume the role of vice chairman and co-owner of the team, making him second in command, reporting only to Rick Hendrick himself, while overseeing the team’s competition and marketing efforts.
“I cannot put into words what Hendrick Motorsports means to me,” Gordon said. “In many ways, it’s my home and the people here are my family. I’ve never lost my passion for the organization, for our sport, and for the sheer challenge of racing and winning at the highest level. Being part of the competition is where I’m happiest and feel I can make the biggest contribution to the continued, long-term success of the team. Rick and I have a shared vision, which is based on the values he’s instilled, the culture he’s built and our desire to be the very best in all categories, on and off the track.”
Of course, this news isn’t the least bit surprising to some NASCAR fans – at least, not to any who’ve been paying attention.
While the NASCAR media has reported it as some shocking, breaking news, it’s actually been in the works for years, thanks to a plan Gordon and Hendrick laid out years ago.
You see, in 1999, Gordon became an equity owner of Hendrick Motorsports, and to this day is the only partner Hendrick has ever had in his race team.
He’s been a part of the team ever since, and helped build Hendrick Motorsports into the powerhouse team it is today, including being the one to push Rick Hendrick to hire a little-known driver out of El Cajon, California named Jimmie Johnson back in 2001.
Gordon also built a tremendous bond with Hendrick and his family outside of the sport, even moving into the Hendrick family’s home after his divorce from his first wife in 2002.
“I joke now that it was like having another son in the house,” Hendrick recalled in 2015. “We’d be in the den and Jeff would come through and say, ‘I’ll see you guys later, I’m going to the mall.’ We’d laugh and say, ‘OK, son!'”
And after Hendrick’s only son, Ricky, was tragically killed alongside nine other Hendrick family members and team members when a plane owned by the team crashed on the way to Martinsville in 2004, the bond between Hendrick and Gordon grew even stronger.
As Hendrick has talked openly about, prior to his son’s passing, the plan was for Hendrick to step away long ago, and pass the torch to Ricky for him to lead the team into the future.
“I would have liked that,” Hendrick said in 2019. “We had just built a building (on the HMS campus) with an office for Ricky near mine. He loved (the business) and was good at it because he’d grown up with it. He was good with sponsors, and he knew the racing part because he’d raced (in Xfinity and Camping World series). I was about to step away and let him take over. That was the plan that never happened.”
But what is happening is the plan that has come together over many years, especially since Gordon’s retirement in 2015, when he and Hendrick both decided that he should go into the broadcast booth for a few years, learn that side of the sport, and then come back to Hendrick Motorsports to learn under Rick before ultimately taking over the team.
Back in 2018, after Gordon had been in the broadcast booth for a few years, Hendrick began talking publicly about that plan, telling Autoweek at that time, “That’s the way we’re going. Whenever I finally step away, it’ll be Jeff Gordon in my place.”
So that brings us to today, as Gordon has officially stepped away from Fox Sports and has been announced as the vice chairman and co-owner of Hendrick Motorsports.
For Hendrick, it’s been a long time coming, but he’s quick to point out he’s not going anywhere anytime soon, which is why he believes this is the perfect time for him and Gordon to work side-by-side for the next few years as he teaches his former driver how to run his NASCAR empire.
“Jeff and I have talked about this for many years, and I feel it’s a natural evolution for him and our company,” said Hendrick, 71, who is also chairman and CEO of Hendrick Automotive Group. “I’ve always been impressed with his business instincts. On some level, he’s been involved in every major decision we’ve made over the last two decades, and his influence has continued to grow since he stopped driving. He understands our culture, our values, and the importance we place on our people and our partnerships.”
“I love racing and competing, and Jeff is the only person I know who hates to lose as much as I do,” Hendrick continued. “I feel great physically and have no plans to go anywhere anytime soon, which is exactly why it’s the right time. In the years to come, I couldn’t be more energized about working arm-in-arm with him and cementing the future of Hendrick Motorsports together.”
As Gordon said in his statement announcing the move, this is his homecoming.
He literally grew up in Hendrick Motorsports, and is as close to being a member of the Hendrick family as anyone without the last name Hendrick can be.
He’s been with the team for every championship, the highs and the lows, and he’s been right by Rick Hendrick’s side as he built the team into the dynasty it is today.
While there’s no doubt that he still has much to learn about managing over 600 employees and a team Forbes values at close to $400 million, no one outside of Rick Hendrick knows Hendrick Motorsports better than Jeff Gordon.
And if anyone is going to fill Rick Hendrick’s gigantic shoes and lead Hendrick Motorsports into the future, especially at the high level fans have come to expect from the team, it’s him.
It was all part of the plan, after all.
Sports with Balls will keep you up-to-date on any developments to this ongoing story.