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Gordon's storied career could've been different

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Jeff Gordon's familiar No. 24 Chevrolet will roll off from the 14th spot when Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 gets underway at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It will be his 21st start in the 600, a race he has won three times. His first victory in the Cup series, in fact, came on the 1.5-mile track in 1994.

A four-time Cup champion, Gordon made his 700th career start just two weeks ago. He has 87 career wins, more than any other active driver. His 300 top-five finishes are fourth highest in the history of the series.

We know who Jeff Gordon is and we know what he's accomplished. What some might not know is how the pieces fell into place to launch one of the sport's most successful driving careers.

If not for a sponsorship appearance, Gordon's NASCAR career might have unfolded in an entirely different manner.

If not for a friendship forged while running sprint cars, Gordon's meteoric rise might have taken an entirely different route.

But the friendship was struck, and the sponsorship commitment was kept, and the two incidents that took place approximately four years apart came together to begin another surprising chapter in the NASCAR record book.

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"I'd never seen a car that out of control," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "I thought he was going to crash."

En route to a sponsor appearance, Hendrick was making his way out of the infield at Atlanta Motor Speedway when he paused to watch the closing action of the 1992 Atlanta 300.

His two Cup teams were already qualified for the next day's Motorcraft Quality Parts 500 at Atlanta. Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 5 Tide Chevrolet, had finished second in points to Dale Earnhardt the previous season. But a slow start found Rudd 23rd in the standings. He would start 24th in Sunday's Cup race.

Ken Schrader fared better in qualifying, putting his No. 25 Kodiak Chevrolet No. 5 on the grid. After a top-10 points finish the previous year, he was 15th overall heading into the Atlanta event.

A meet-and-greet awaited, but Hendrick was intrigued by what he saw as he made his way up to the suites located above the race track.

"The only way to get to the suites was to walk under the track ? I get on the other side of the track, right at the fence and this car comes by and goes into the corner and smoke is rolling off the tires," Hendrick said. "I stopped and said, 'this guy is going to crash, watch this.' He comes back around and takes the lead."

Jeff Gordon, the pole sitter, had just shot past Dale Jarrett to retake the lead. Thirty-six laps later, the 20-year-old Gordon was celebrating in the winner's circle.

It was his first victory in a NASCAR-sanctioned event.

"I could not believe how much car control he had," said Hendrick. That's that young Gordon kid, he was told.

"I'd seen him," Hendrick said, "on Saturday Night Thunder.

"I went home and still couldn't get it out of my mind."

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Today, you'll likely find Andy Graves in the Cup garage wearing a starched white shirt featuring the TRD logo. As the vice president of chassis engineering for Toyota Racing Development and Toyota NASCAR program manager, Graves' input is felt across all of the Toyota teams competing in NASCAR.

Twenty-five years ago, he was a high-school race junkie who could build a Super Modified from the ground up and running his father's race shop.

He was also doing research and development work for Hoosier Tires, the prominent supplier for Super Modified teams.

He was also just finishing up high school.

"Hoosier called me up and said they wanted to hire me for the day," Graves said, "because 'the (sprint) all-stars are going to run on asphalt at Sandusky, Ohio and we'd like you to help us with tire selections.'"

Upon his arrival in Sandusky, the decision was made for Graves to focus on helping only one team. The driver was likewise young and equally talented.

Andy Graves, meet Jeff Gordon.

"We set fast times and lapped the field in the feature," Graves said, smiling at the memory.

Gordon and his stepfather, John Bickford, were impressed with Graves' abilities. So much so that they convinced the native New Yorker to move to Indianapolis, live with the family and work for the team.

The move -- Graves' stint lasted from 1989-1990 -- set the stage for Hendrick Motorsports to enter the picture.

It was in Indianapolis that Graves met Ken Howes, the South African who had moved to the U.S. to pursue his own racing interests and had quickly been hired by Hendrick to help General Motors breathe life into its road-racing program.

"One day Ken grabbed me and said, 'hey, we're looking for a couple of guys to start the Hendrick chassis shop,'" Graves said. Gary DeHart would run the shop, "and he wanted to introduce me to Gary."

Graves was offered a position, took it, and soon found himself moving to Charlotte, N.C., home base to the majority of those competing in NASCAR's Cup series.

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Team owner Bill Davis had been fielding cars in NASCAR's Busch (now Nationwide) Series on a limited basis when Ford officials approached him with the idea of putting a young sprint car driver named Gordon behind the wheel.

Davis, the Arkansas trucking company owner, had enjoyed some success with fellow Arkansas native Mark Martin winning three times in Davis equipment.

The association with Gordon would mean going full-time, with an eye toward eventually stepping up to Cup.

Davis decided to take the plunge.

"I moved to Charlotte in November of 1990," Graves said. "Jeff got the deal with Bill Davis about the same time. So we basically decided to get an apartment together in Charlotte."

(When a third roommate, Bob Lutz, arrived on the scene in '92, the group gave up the apartment for a house. Lutz, a childhood friend of Graves, would eventually launch the popular Richard Petty Driving Experience.)

Graves' employment was solid. Gordon's NASCAR career was underway.

And Hendrick was on his way to meet with sponsors when a seemingly out-of-control racer caught his attention.

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Before there was Jimmie Johnson, there was Jimmy Johnson.

Jimmy Johnson the businessman moved from Hendrick Automotive to Hendrick Motorsports in 1985, and as general manager (1985-2001) he oversaw the daily operation of the growing company as it expanded from a single-car team into a multicar organization.

Hendrick, the owner, had the vision, but it was Johnson who helped turn that vision into reality during his tenure with the group.

And it was Johnson who knew that Graves and the young Gordon were roommates when Hendrick returned from Atlanta that spring day in '92.

"I still remember to this day," Graves said. "I was at a mill, machining some parts and Jimmy came in looking for me. At that time I was on the 5 car of Ricky Rudd; I was the tire specialist, but I was up in the chassis shop machining some parts.

"(Jimmy) came in and said, 'I need to talk to you about your roommate. Rick's really interested, but we want to know how long his contract is.'"

"I said 'he doesn't have a contract.'

"He said, 'come with me.'"

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When Graves told Gordon of the inquiry later that evening, and added that Hendrick wanted to meet with him the following day, Gordon said he was "stunned."

What about the deal with Ford and Davis? "Nothing we can't get out of," Gordon said.

"Andy had told me so much about Hendrick Motorsports and then watching (them) on TV ? I think Rudd was either contending for the title, or had been the year before.

"I was like, 'man I hope this goes well because I would love to drive a race car for him.'"

Gordon said he remembers "walking in there, trying to be professional, trying not to be overexcited. "But I was very excited to get the chance to meet Rick."

Hendrick's recollection?

"I hadn't seen him out of a race car," Hendrick said, "and I don't know what I expected. But this little guy with this pencil moustache ? I'm sitting there looking at him and thinking this wasn't the same guy driving that car (at Atlanta)."

Although the offer was extended, Gordon didn't immediately jump at the opportunity. He wanted confirmation that this was the right move.

Ray Evernham, who would go on to guide Gordon to three of his four Cup titles at HMS, was Gordon's crew chief at Bill Davis Racing.

"He was the person I had the most faith in," Gordon said. "I said, 'I think this is a great opportunity. Can you go and check this out and be a part of this?'

"I'll never forget the day he came back from visiting Hendrick Motorsports; he said 'you'd be a fool not to do this. I just see opportunity everywhere, the resources are there."

Evernham said that, "as a mechanic, I looked at all those parts and pieces and said, 'Oh yeah, man I'm coming to Hendrick (with you).'"

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On Sunday, Gordon will don his driver's uniform and climb through the driver's side opening of his No. 24 Chevrolet.

It will be the 701st time he's done so at the Cup level. Every one of them as a member of the Hendrick Motorsports organization.

"Coming into the Cup series I think everything is unknown," Gordon said. "You don't know if you have what it takes. You don't know if you came into a team that ? has what it takes.

"With that many unknowns you hope to get the opportunity to win one race. Now I just hope I get the opportunity to win another race. That is kind of how I have gone throughout my career -- just work as hard as you can to do your part as a driver to go and have opportunities to win races.

"We have gone through some great times and won a bunch of races. It all started right here (winning at Charlotte) and hopefully another one can come here."

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If not for a meeting; if not for a friendship. Two vastly different incidents taking place four years apart eventually came together.

And the rest is history.

"It was one of the greatest things that happened to me and to racing," Hendrick said of signing Gordon.

"I met a terrific friend and one of the greatest race car drivers that ever stepped into a car in this sport."

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