© St. Petersburg Times, published October 27, 2002
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Nearly 10 years have passed since a giddy 21-year-old with a peach-fuzz mustache made his Winston Cup debut in the 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Jeff Gordon was a footnote that day.
The final race of 1992 had bigger story lines, including a down-to-the wire championship battle between Alan Kulwicki and local favorite Bill Elliott, and the farewell race of seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty's career. Elliott won the race, Kulwicki won the title, Petty blew an engine -- all newsworthy finishes.
No one paid much attention to Gordon. Little did they know that day also marked a beginning.
Exit, "The King."
Enter, "The Kid."
"It seems like 20 minutes ago to me," said Gordon, a four-time champion who starts seventh in today's NAPA 500. "It's just flown by. It seems like just yesterday we were winning our first race."
In his 10th season, Gordon has 61 wins, 157 top fives, 206 top 10s and 42 poles in 325 consecutive starts. But waving to the crowd for driver introductions on Nov. 15, 1992, Gordon had butterflies in his stomach and no inkling what his future would hold.
"At that time, I just wanted to build a team that would gain experience and consistency," said Gordon, who was in a wreck that day with "me, myself and I" and finished 31st. "I didn't even know if I had what it took to win races in Winston Cup. When you get to this level, you know you're surrounded by the best. You know these guys are so good. You just don't know if you're good enough to be here, let alone win."
He got some idea the next season, with a victory in the 125-mile qualifying race at Daytona, two runner-up finishes, a pole at Charlotte and rookie of the year status.
He was on his way.
"Those were building blocks for us," said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. "It was a lot different than it is for today's rookies. These guys have got to win. Back then, if you finished second and sat on the pole, you were having a great year for a rookie.
"After '93, I knew we were going to start making some big strides and start heading in the right direction. But championships weren't even a thought. Winning 13 races in one season -- ludicrous. Any goals I set then weren't even close to what we accomplished."
Today's rookies are aiming a higher. Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman did not begin 2002 thinking about championships, but with four races left, both are in the thick of the tightest title chase since NASCAR adopted the current points system in 1975. Gordon, 31, is co-owner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.
"We're not supposed to be in this position," said Johnson, who trails points-leader Tony Stewart by 82. "We put ourselves in this position by racing hard and having fun. So, we're just going to keep smiling and having fun."
Gordon arrives at AMS, site of the Winston Cup's final race from 1987-2001, out of title contention for just the third time in eight years. After finishing 36th last weekend at Martinsville, Gordon is sixth in the standings, 291 points behind Stewart.
"I know mathematically we're not out of it, but realistically we are," he said. "I was a little sad on Monday. I knew how important races were and that we had to have everything go our way."
He shifts from contender to mentor, offering Johnson any information that might help him become the first rookie to win the title. Gordon, of course, knows a thing or two about championships.
"Late in the season you've got to perform," he said. "You've got to be careful with what you say. If you start talking too much about points or start overanalyzing it, you can get yourself in a position where it adds pressure to you."
Ten years ago, no one paid much attention to Gordon, whose mustache was supposed to make him look older -- but didn't. Today, he is mentioned in the same sentence with the sport's best: the late Dale Earnhardt and Petty, the only seven-time champions.
"I didn't really get a chance to race with Richard that day, he kind of went up in a ball of flames. But I raced with Dale and he is definitely the best driver I ever raced with. If someone puts me in that category, I'm extremely honored. ... It's a little overwhelming and somewhat uncomfortable."
Like that first career start.