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Gordon remembers his racing start in the No. 67

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There’s the winged sprint car, the midget entry and the Silver Crown machine. The rainbow-colored Chevrolets are on the other side of the room, separated by years and a handful of small tables adorned with No. 24 racing memorabilia.
 
But the car that catches his eye is the white Pontiac stock car. It’s the No. 67 and other than the Outback Steakhouse logo across the hood, it’s vanilla plain by today’s standards.
 
Jeff Gordon, a four-time NASCAR premier series champion, hasn’t seen this car in probably two decades or more. But it was one of the few that helped kick-start his stock car racing career.
 
“That’s where I got my very first start,” Gordon, 44, tells the crowd during Wednesday’s opening of “24: A Tribute to Jeff Gordon” at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
 
Racing folks know Jeff Gordon the NASCAR star. They know the Hendrick Motorsports driver that, paired with crew chief Ray Evernham, was a force in the series throughout the 1990s. But before he was champion, before he began piling up wins (he’s at 92 and counting), he was Jeff Gordon the former open-wheel racer who wanted to try his hand in stock cars.
 
And the No. 67 was where it all began.
 
“There are some incredible stories that belong to that car,” said Gordon. “But most importantly was I sat on the outside front row at Rockingham in that car and the rest is kind of history. That’s what led to the phone call from (team owner) Bill Davis which … led to the phone call from Rick Hendrick and here we are today.”
 
Impressed with Gordon’s efforts during a stint at the Buck Baker Driving School, team owner Hugh Connerty offered the youngster a chance to drive his car in what’s now the XFINITY Series. That took place in 1990.
 
Gordon made three attempts, failing to qualify at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. In between, at Rockingham, he qualified the car on the outside of the front row.
 
“Unfortunately I have the kind of memory that goes immediately to I remember wrecking on Lap 23,” said Gordon. “We actually tried to run at Charlotte first; qualifying got rained out. We were pretty fast. I knew the car had good speed in it. Then we went to Rockingham and I knew it had good speed in it that day, but we weren’t anywhere close to thinking we were going to be on the outside front row. Laid down a great lap and I think everyone was surprised.
 
“Even today if you really think about it, if somebody comes along and they’re not in one of the top cars or with one of the top teams out there, you’ve not heard a lot about them, and all of a sudden they wind up on the front row, it’s going to draw your attention and you’re going to wonder who this person is.
 
“For me I was fortunate that wrecking on Lap 23 didn’t take away from being on the front row. I just remember getting some huge phone calls after that. I didn’t realize how big it was as the time, I knew I was excited that we were on the front row, but I had no idea what it was going to do for my career.”
 
The exhibit, which features nine cars raced by Gordon during his career, is scheduled to run through Jan. 10 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.