Jeff Gordon: The driver who brought NASCAR mainstream

The classic NASCAR film “Days of Thunder” was loosely based on the career of 13-time premier series victor Tim Richmond, who had earned the nickname “Hollywood.”

Given his comfort in the spotlight over the course of the past two decades, perhaps the nickname would also suit Jeff Gordon, who retired from full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition after falling just short in his bid for a historic fifth title on Sunday.

Born a California boy, it was clear from the start of his career that Gordon was cut from a different cloth than the good ol’ boys who had ruled NASCAR throughout its storied history.

He was polished. He was refined. He was — eventually, once mustache met razor — well-groomed.

And people took notice.

Before long there were endorsements, seemingly more Gordon memorabilia lining the shelves than shelves themselves and, oh yeah, four titles in his first nine seasons, solidifying a Hall of Fame resume before he even hit age 30.

And Gordon’s influence on the actual racing part of the sport will be everlasting. Take a look at the final Sprint Cup standings. There are only two drivers in the top 25 who originally hail from North Carolina (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon ), NASCAR’s original talent pool hot bed.

Many factors led to this, but Gordon’s All-American appeal, charm and charisma helped pave the way — even while playing the foil to Dale Earnhardt — opening up NASCAR to a mainstream audience, flooding stands and couches in front of non-flat-screened TV sets with an audience that stretched from coast to coast, border to border.

An audience that tuned in to see Gordon become the first — and to date, only — race car driver host one of America’s most notable television programs, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Jeff Gordon‘s monologue from a 2003 episode of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

“I asked (Gordon) recently, a while back, about what made you go on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ what made you want to do that,” NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Number 1, he said, ‘Well, they asked me.’ And I said, ‘Well, OK.’ But he said, ‘Look, I felt comfortable doing a lot of things that were not mainstream for a NASCAR driver.’

“And he was smart about it. He knew that that could separate him from other drivers and he was good at it.”

Gordon’s SNL appearance on Jan. 11, 2003, was a tipping point of bringing NASCAR to the masses, an unquestionable testament to the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s popularity and wide-ranging allure.

Gordon got to “beat up” a fake Gary Busey while hosting “SNL.”

It’s the crowning achievement in Gordon’s on-screen roles, a list that includes 27 appearances on “Live!” (with Regis/Kathie Lee/Kelly/Michael), including 11 guest hosting gigs.

He’s also appeared in “Spin City”, “Arli$$”, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, “The Drew Carey Show”, “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”, “Taxi”, “Herbie Fully Loaded”, “Sesame Street”, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”, “Top Gear”, “The Simpsons”, “Jeopardy” and even “Cars 2” — as the appropriately named character “Jeff Gorvette.”

That curriculum vitae alone — which is pared down; check out his entire IMDb page — shows Gordon’s star power across generations of fans and television watchers.

Gordon also got to play a fighter pilot.

Ultimately, with Gordon walking away on such a high note from the sport he’s gotten so much out of, NASCAR has reaped the benefits of his contributions. Millions of NASCAR fans can thank Jeff Gordon for opening their eyes to the sport.

“He’s one of those guys, I always look back at drivers that take out a lot less than they put in,” France said. “He’s one of those guys that has put in a lot to grow the sport. And other drivers should think about that a little bit. Because he’s really a model in that respect.

“I have a lot of respect for Jeff Gordon.”