CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jeff Gordon didn't give much thought to NASCAR while racing sprint cars in Indiana as a teenager. He was too busy trying to get into open-wheel racing.
But when Gordon's career stalled, he headed south to try his hand at stock-car racing and went on to win 93 Cup Series races — third on the career list — and four season championships while helping NASCAR move from a predominantly regional sport to the mainstream in the 1990s.
Gordon was honored for his career achievements Wednesday, when he was selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame — an honor he said felt "surreal."
"I came down to North Carolina hoping and dreaming of something, but I didn't know much about NASCAR racing," he recalled. "Everything was IndyCar, open-wheel, sprint-car and midget racing to me. I knew about the Daytona 500, and I knew who Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt were — but that was it."
Gordon, a first-ballot selection at age 46 and less than two years removed from his last race, received 96 percent of the votes from the committee, meaning only two of the 57 voters didn't pick him. Only Petty (200) and Bobby Pearson (105) have won more Cup Series races than Gordon.
He is joined in the 2019 class by team owners Roger Penske and Jack Roush, plus late drivers Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.
Roush has won a record 325 races across NASCAR's three national series, including five national series owner championships, while his drivers have won three championships. He helped Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch become Cup Series champions in 2003 and 2004, respectively, and jumpstarted the careers of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
But Roush, 76, said his fondest memory in racing was when Mark Martin delivered him his first Cup Series win as an owner in 1989 in Rockingham, North Carolina.
"What that meant to me is I could find a sponsor to keep going, and for Mark it meant that the team was going to be solid and keep putting cars on the track," Roush said. "There was some doubt in our minds if we were going to be able to turn the corner."
Said Martin: "He mentored and gave the tools to people who otherwise wouldn't have gotten the opportunity had it not been for him."
Penske, 81, won the Cup Series championship in 2012 with driver Brad Keselowski, and his team owns two Daytona 500 wins (Ryan Newman in 2008 and Joey Logano in 2015). In addition to his three-car NASCAR stable, he has five IndyCar drivers.
"I don't know of anyone who has accomplished as much across all levels of motorsports as Roger Penske," said retired Cup Series driver Rusty Wallace, third on the list of NASCAR wins for Team Penske. "I don't know anyone in motorsports that is more respected among all levels of racing as Roger."
Kulwicki, known for his wrong-way "Polish victory lap," and Allison, who won 19 Cup Series races, including the 1992 Daytona 500, were rising stars in NASCAR before their deaths in aviation accidents months apart in 1993. Kulwicki died at age 38 in a plane crash that April, while the charismatic Allison lost his life at age 32 that July after the helicopter he was piloting crashed.
Gordon called Allison a "rock star."
"He was the one who was going to take NASCAR to the next level," Gordon added.
Allison will join his father in the Hall of Fame. Bobby Allison, who was inducted in 2011, couldn't hold back his emotions after hearing his son's name called, saying he had to gather himself. He called Bobby "the ultimate son."
"How many fathers here have had their son come to them and say, 'Dad, how can I get better at what I want to do?'" Allison said.
Kulwicki was a short-track racer from Wisconsin who made the move to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1984 with nothing but a pickup truck and a self-built race car with hopes of competing in the Cup Series. With no sponsor and a limited budget, he went on to become rookie of the year in 1986 with his self-owned AK Racing team. He won five races in his career and the Cup Series championship in 1992.
He was known for his victory celebrations in which he turned his car after crossing the finish line and drove around the track in the opposite direction.
Jim Hunter was selected as the Landmark Award winner. He worked six decades as a company executive, track president, public relations professional and journalist.