Jeff Gordon, less than a season away from his Rookie of the Year performance on the Busch Grand National circuit, is a household name in stock car racing.
He has signed a deal for a full Winston Cup ride next season that has caused gnashing of teeth within Ford Motor Co., upset his Busch car owner and team and brought him more attention than he ever wanted.
"I was a bit startled by everyone's reaction," Gordon said yesterday, as he passed through Baltimore on his way to Dover, Del., and tomorrow's 200-mile Busch race at Dover Downs International Speedway. "It turned into a controversy, but there are two sides, and unless you're on the inside and in my shoes, no one can know it all. There really isn't a place for a lot of things to come out."
This is what happened.
In his first year in the Busch Grand Nationals, Gordon developed a reputation as the best new driver since, perhaps, Dale %J Earnhardt.
He began his career as a 13-year-old in quarter-midgets and became the youngest driver to earn a U.S. Auto Club competitor's license, getting it on his 16th birthday. He has won more than 600 events of open-wheel and NASCAR racing -- and he won't turn 21 until Aug. 5.
Last year, driving for the Bill Davis-owned Ford team, he finished 11th overall in points and earned the Rookie of the Year award.
Gordon, Davis and Ford seemed solid.
So imagine the reaction three weeks ago, when Gordon announced he will leave Davis and Ford at the end of this season to move into a full-time Winston Cup ride with car owner Rick Hendrick and his Chevrolet operation.
Hendrick, who has always fielded Chevrolets, was accused of raiding Ford's most talented young driver. Gordon was criticized for not giving Ford and Davis a chance to match whatever offer Hendrick had made.
At racetracks, fans and competitors are still talking about the "ungrateful" kid.
"I made the decision to leave, and I made the decision to announce it early," said Gordon. "It was a good decision. I think it would have been much tougher on everyone if I had tried to keep it secret. Ford, Bill Davis, my current sponsor, Baby Ruth, they've done a lot for me. I know that, and I'm thankful. But at the same time, I had this big decision to make about my future, and I made it."
When Hendrick, whose cars have won 22 races since 1984, made the offer, Gordon, Davis and the team were trying to find major sponsorship to move up to Winston Cup racing together.
Gordon said the news of his departure initially affected his current team negatively.
"But I think they understand now that it was an opportunity I couldn't let get away," he said. "And the fact we won last week at Charlotte proves we still have a lot of confidence in each other. I'm on track, and so are they."
The victory was Gordon's second of the season, and he is in third place (1,577) in points, behind Kenny Wallace (1,647) and Bobby Labonte (1,578).
In his first race at Dover last spring, Gordon ran second to Todd Bodine. He said yesterday that he likes the one-mile oval and expects another strong showing, even though the field is full of Winston Cup drivers, such as Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Harry Gant and Mark Martin.
"I'm glad they're all in there," Gordon said. "I want to run with all of them, and I want to beat them."