Back in the early 1990s, California-born Jeff Gordon caught a wave.
The four-time Sprint Cup champion has ridden the surge of NASCAR's popularity to a 37th-place ranking in this year's Celebrity 100 as selected by Forbes magazine, which lists Gordon's annual income, including endorsements, at $32 million, a figure Gordon says is overblown.
“Don't pay attention to what Forbes puts in there,” Gordon quipped after Friday night's formal Sprint Cup awards banquet at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “They add a lot of extra numbers.”
What happens, however, when the currents of fortune turn awry? What happens when a driver with Gordon's savoir faire, “Q” rating and crossover popularity can't sustain the upward trend line that has carried him throughout his career.
If you're Jeff Gordon, you embrace the notion of shared sacrifice, even if that means rebating part of your annual salary to keep your team competing at the highest level. In his willingness to entertain that idea, Gordon is not alone in the Cup garage.
Gordon, who drives the #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, understands that the economic problems confronting big-time stock car racing are far more generalised than the specific troubles that have beset U.S. automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler and have forced the Big Three to go hat-in-hand to Congress.
“I'm taking a hit regardless of what happens with GM, through some other sponsors and personal endorsements,” Gordon said. “It's affecting all of us in some way, somehow. …
“This is not a laughing matter. It's tough times. It's something to be very serious about. We not only have to pay attention to raising money and finding companies out there to do that with, but we also have to watch our costs as well and not be exuberant.”
Nicorette, which sponsored Gordon's car for eight of 36 Cup races, won't be back in 2009. National Guard, currently on teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s #88 Chevy, is rumoured to be moving to Gordon.
“We have replaced them,” Gordon acknowledged in response to a question about Nicorette. “I still don't know why we haven't announced it yet.”
So, is it National Guard?
“We have replaced them,” Gordon deadpanned, ducking the direct question.