(Image/USA Today)

(Image/USA Today)

NASCAR was almost exclusively a southern thing. Something we Yanks watched and enjoyed, but could always tell wasn’t really for us.

It was full of Southern accents, good ol’ boys, and associated symbolically with the tobacco industry and Confederate flag.

And then Jeff Gordon happened.

A little pretty boy from California with no discernible Southern drawl. He was the real-life version of Days of Thunder’s Cole Trickle. Faithful fans of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. hated him and his Hendrick Motorsports rainbow-colored DuPont #24 Chevrolet immediately. But another segment of the fan base flocked to him, and now fans new to NASCAR were tuning in to watch the new guy.

And then Gordon started winning. And winning. And winning. And winning some more.

NASCAR started getting more coverage on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and people who had never watched a stock car race knew his name. The “Wonder Boy”—as he was dubbed by Earnhardt Sr.—became a force of nature.

Gordon was polarizing—not because of his personality, as he always seemed polished, pleasant, and professional—but because he was the first guy who didn’t really belong to threaten the establishment. He was both loved and hated. He got the most cheers AND the most boos when he’d take leads in races, or smoke the tires after another win.

Over his now-legendary 23-year career, Gordon won four championships, three Daytona 500s, and captured the checkered flag 93 times (the most in the modern era—1972-present—and third most all time).

NASCAR, its legion of fans, its participants, and notable figures throughout all of motorsports, paid tribute to the 44-year-old Sunday as he closed the book on his storied career as a full-time racer, though we’ll see plenty of him as an analyst moving forward, and likely behind the wheel on a part-time, case-by-case basis.

Gordon finished sixth in NASCAR’s final Sprint Cup race of the 2015 season, finishing third in the championship points standings, after super-talented Kyle Busch earned his first Sprint Cup championship by winning yesterday’s race. And while Busch’s win is extraordinarily impressive following a broken leg and foot suffered in a nasty wreck in his first race of the season, the day still belonged to Gordon.

Many fans love Gordon. But many hated him, too. Because he wasn’t invited, and he didn’t belong.

But then, without waiting for permission, Gordon took what was rightfully his. All the wins. The championships. The adoration. The respect. The crown.

Because now? Gordon is the establishment. Gordon belongs. Gordon walks away from the driver’s seat worthy of a spot on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore.

And all that hate is now something people just remember, but don’t actually feel.

So we join all the race teams and pit crews at Sunday’s race, standing, and nodding, and cheering, and appreciating Gordon’s gigantic contribution to motorsports, even though we didn’t always do that on race day over the past 20-plus years.

Good show, #24.

Thanks for everything.

Author: Matt Griswold

After a 10-year newspaper journalism career, Matt Griswold spent another decade writing about the automotive aftermarket and motorsports. He was part of the original OnAllCylinders editorial team when it launched in 2012.