"Jeff Gordon brings everything he needs to as a driver," Yates says. "Rick Hendrick provides everything he needs to in the equipment with some great people there and a great organization. They are just flat tough to beat anyway."
Petty was the face of NASCAR racing during his lengthy racing career. The mere mention of NASCAR conjured up visions of Petty driving the famous No. 43 at Daytona and other circuits on the schedule.
Mention NASCAR today, and the immediate vision is Gordon driving the No. 24 Chevrolet to another checkered flag.
"I think he is really good for the sport," Petty says. "When it first started, you had some people, but you didn't have any press. I came along and didn't have that much press, but I filled up a gap. Then, you had Dale Earnhardt come along and he fills up a gap. Now, you have Jeff Gordon taking it from one era into another era.
"Right now, he is our spokesperson, as far as racing is concerned, because that's our winner. He is doing a good job. We have so many new fans who don't know how rough it used to be. They look at football, baseball and basketball. I think he brings it up to a new level of awareness with the new fans."
Tackling Stock Cars
To be compared to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt is quite an honor to a young driver who was headed to an Indy car career in the late '80s. Gordon moved from California to Pittsboro, Indiana, as a teenager for a chance to continue his open-wheel racing career in the '80s.
"I always knew the name Richard Petty, I just didn't follow stock car racing that much," Gordon says. "If I just go back 10 years ago, or even 15 years ago, stock car racing was still something that was looked at as a Southeastern kind of thing. A lot of us didn't know how huge it was or the fan base that it had.
"Growing up in California, I didn't know much about it. To me, it was all about sprint cars because that is what was going on around my area and it was all about the Indianapolis 500."
Then one day Gordon had a conversation with a man who put an idea into his head.
"What really got it started for me was Larry Nuber," Gordon says of the late television broadcaster. "Because he did some commentating on ESPN on NASCAR races, he asked me if I had thought about stock cars. I said I hadn't. He told me I really needed to try to drive one. I asked how I would do that and he told me about the Buck Baker Driving School.
"So I went down there and said, 'Man, I love this. This is cool. This is an awesome racetrack at Rockingham. It's got high banks; it's fast. Man, this is what I like, right here.'
"That's when I locked onto NASCAR. I started watching and listening to everything that I could. Unfortunately, it was toward the end of Richard's career. That is why I got criticized in 1993 and 1994, maybe even 1995, not knowing the history of the sport and all that Richard Petty had done. I've had to educate myself since then."
Gordon's first Winston Cup race came in the final race of Petty's career. It was the last race of the 1992 season, and Gordon drove the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet in a 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in preparation for his 1993 rookie season. It's as if the baton was being handed from the outgoing king to the boy king.
"People were saying, this is Jeff Gordon's first race and he may be somebody to watch in the future and here is Richard Petty's last race," Gordon says. "Maybe it was just because I was the new guy that day. I don't know, but it was very cool to be mentioned in the same sentence that day and it was pretty cool for me to be a part of that event because it was Richard's last event. I got a chance to see him in action, in the garage area, on the racetrack, and to experience that is something that I'll never forget."
Dueling With Dale
Gordon only had one opportunity to race against Petty, but he enjoyed many battles with Earnhardt.