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With four Cup Series titles to his credit, Jeff Gordon is one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. He’s in the Hall of Fame. Since retiring, he’s worked in the broadcast booth and, in early 2022, moved to his current role as vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, where he is the eventual successor to the business namesake when he decides to step away.

In other words, the three-time Daytona 500 winner has influence. In recent weeks, he has shared his thoughts about the sport’s current state and where he’d like to see it go. While there’s no doubt he has good intentions and wants what’s best for NASCAR, his ideas are flawed and a step in the wrong direction. 

Jeff Gordon wants his drivers to steer clear of controversy

Jeff Gordon has been around NASCAR for decades. During his racing days, he had a healthy rivalry with Dale Earnhardt, and that entertaining relationship was good for the sport. 

But today’s NASCAR is dramatically different. Those rivalries don’t exist. The larger-than-life personalities are a relic of the past. However, some drivers with flair aren’t afraid of controversy and know how to get a reaction from fans. 

Kyle Busch did it for years with Joe Gibbs Racing. Now, his former JGR teammate, Denny Hamlin, has taken up the mantle as NASCAR’s leading villain.

“What I do agree with is Denny is trying to do things to stir up conversation,” Gordon said during a recent appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “To get people, at least having an opinion, right? Whether it’s a positive or a negative one, you have an opinion. And the fact that he is embracing that, I’ll give him kudos all day long. Go for it. I wouldn’t want that to be one of our drivers.”

The show co-host asked Gordon why, which prompted a lengthy response:

“Because it’s too controversial. To me, it’s a distraction. I feel like I want our drivers to go and build a fan base by winning races and by being themselves, but not doing things. And I think Denny is being himself to a certain degree, but I think he’s also kind of, it’s like an alter ego as well. 

“Again, I want other guys in the sport to do stuff like that. If they come to Hendrick Motorsports — and you can call us stiff. You can call us whatever you want. But we’re running a business, and a business is to win races first, take care of your sponsors, and let the sponsors market you. Let the sport figure out how to market you. Build your brand through who you are on social media and be the best you that you can be. 

“But, if you really want to go to the race track focused on winning races, it’s hard to do that when you have a lot of distractions. If Denny thrives on that, great. I just don’t think that it’s healthy within the organization when you have four drivers and you’re going into meetings together and you’re talking about how you go to the next race to win when you’re having to deal with some of those things.”

Denny Hamlin calls out Gordon for questionable take

As expected, Hamlin didn’t let Gordon’s words go without a response. The JGR driver and 23XI Racing team co-owner fired back on his Actions Detrimental podcast.

“That sounds like a guy I don’t want to go to war with,” Hamlin started. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I’ll go to war, but you get up front.’ Jeff Gordon said that? That is How to Stunt NASCAR Growth 101, is say, ‘Oh, that’s too controversial for us. Call us stiff.'”

He wasn’t done.

“He likes it. He thinks it’s a distraction if it was on his team. Well, thank God I don’t drive for him. Has he been watching a race in the last 12 weeks?” the JGR driver asked, referring to his success recently. “He’s basically saying I want them to be tidy, not controversial. I couldn’t disagree more. I’m glad I drive for Joe Gibbs Racing. I’m glad I run my team the way I run my team because I will never run my team saying things like that. 

“That’s his opinion. He’s allowed to have that opinion but certainly think that is the absolute wrong way to go if you want star power in this sport.”

Jeff Gordon offers thoughts on appealing to NASCAR fans

Jeff Gordon never responded to Hamlin’s remarks, but he did talk about the state of the sport during the Racers Forum at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where he participated in a panel discussion with other key figures from the industry, including driver/RFK Racing co-owner Brad Keselowski. During that conversation, the HMS exec said race organizations should consider investing more in their brands to create loyal fan bases that stick with their team regardless of the driver behind the wheel.

“Joey Logano, I heard say this the other day, and it kind of hit me, and I was like, ‘I love this.’ In all other sports, the teams are kind of what the fans are all drawn to. I’m a [San Francisco] 49ers fan, and no matter who the players are, I’m going to like the players on that team,” Gordon said, according to Racing America.

He suggested that race organizations directly connecting with the fans will help the teams and, more importantly, the sport overall because it will help minimize the impact when the most popular drivers retire. 

“Joe Montana, of course, was one of my heroes, and I loved him because he was a 49er,” Gordon said. “When he left the 49ers and went to the Kansas City Chiefs, I was like, ‘Eh, who’s the new quarterback?’ I think we have a role as race teams to build our brand up, maybe not as much as the star power of the driver, but in a way where drivers — and we’ve seen this recently with Jimmie Johnson, Dale [Earnhardt] Jr., and myself, several big drivers that have huge fan followings stepped away from the sport, and I think it had a big impact on the sport. Because the fans seem to not have a connection to the team as strongly as they did to the driver.”

Why his theory is flawed

On SiriusXM a few weeks earlier, Jeff Gordon said he believed drivers should grow their fan bases by winning races and letting the sponsors — or the sport itself — market them. Denny Hamlin pointed out how that’s not an approach with which he and many others agree.  

Gordon’s latest theory on growing — or, at a minimum, maintaining —the NASCAR fan base is also flawed. 

He mentioned how he’s a San Francisco 49ers fan. Why? He’s from that area in California. Geography has always been a common way for fans to affiliate with a team in stick-and-ball sports.

That’s impossible in NASCAR because most teams are located in a tiny area in North Carolina. The only real way geography can play a factor is by fans supporting a driver from their area, such as Joey Logano from Connecticut or Chris Buescher from Texas. But again, it goes back to the driver, which is the way the sport has always been marketed to fans.

You have to give Gordon credit. He’s at least trying to think of alternative ways to grow the sport. Unfortunately, the methods he suggested aren’t necessarily the best way to do it.

To stay up to date on the latest happenings in NASCAR, including breaking stories you can’t find anywhere else, follow Kyle on YouTube and Twitter.