Gordon fueled NASCAR's revolution

— -- Drivers, start your thank-yous.

Actually, make that drivers, fans, corporations, media ... people who have made a living or spent even just a fraction of their lives around NASCAR racing over the past two decades, they -- we -- should all be cranking up our gratitude.

Whether you've spent the past 23 years cheering Jeff Gordon or booing him, you should spend the next year lining up to shake his hand. We all should.

On Thursday morning, The Artist Formerly Known As Wonder Boy made official the whispers that have been hanging out in his slipstream over the last handful of years: The 2015 season will be his last as a full-time racer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

When he started, it was the Winston Cup Series. By the time he takes the checkered flag at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, we should know what logo will precede "Cup" for 2017 and beyond.

In between, so many people have made so much money. So many racetracks have been built. So many race fans have bought tickets. So many NASCAR executives have pocketed so many billions of dollars in television cash. And so many drivers have bought airplanes, motor coaches, and starred in TV commercials and made Hollywood cameos.

Looking back, Jeff Gordon should have been paid a commission on all of it.

It's easy to forget now what the NASCAR world was like when Gordon made his first Winston Cup start, the 1992 season finale at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was Richard Petty's last race. He was joined in the field by the likes of the gods of the era, men such as  Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Harry Gant, Darrell Waltrip, Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison. The winner of that race was Bill Elliott, capping one of the greatest seasons of his career. Next week, Elliott will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Next season, presumably, Elliott's 19-year-old son, Chase, will slide into Gordon's vacated ride.

In 1992, the sport was still powered by motor oil and the dueling vices of beer and tobacco. The grandstands, packed almost exclusively with men, were coated in the residue of all three. NASCAR was very much the lesser redneck cousin of Indy car racing, with telecasts scattered across an alphabet soup of cable channels, crammed in between bowling tournaments and fishing shows. The Winston Cup schedule only ventured west of the Mississippi twice a year, and those trips, to Phoenix and Sonoma, were still new.

The arrival of Gordon, 20 years old in a paddock full of 40-somethings, changed all of that forever. This is not hyperbole. This is hard fact. Anyone who was around to watch the revolution that he sparked knows this. He was a Californian in a world of Carolinians. A blow-dried haircut in a world of flat tops. A dirt track, open-wheel racer, a big-tire, no-windows sprint car ace in a world of heavy-footed, leather-faced stock car drivers.

Today you could apply Gordon's résumé to most of the drivers who will be in the field for next month's Daytona 500. Back then, he might as well have just been beamed in from Tatooine.

But it wasn't his peculiarity that turned heads -- that came later. It was the fact that the youngster was also a steely-eyed wheel man. He won the Coca-Cola 600 in 1994 and followed with a victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400. That win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an alchemic moment for NASCAR, a coming-of-age star winning the sport's coming-of-age race.

Over the next six years, Gordon won 52 races and three Cup titles. In the meantime, the Indy car world tore itself apart. NASCAR's attendance and television numbers skyrocketed. Entrepreneurs began building racetracks throughout every time zone, and NASCAR expanded its schedule to include those new sparkling facilities. In 1995, ESPN launched the first-ever nightly television show dedicated entirely to motorsports. The first weekend of "RPM2Night" included an interview with that day's race winner ... Jeff Gordon. Just five years later, NASCAR inked the first of a series of newly modeled gold-plated television contracts.

Was Gordon solely responsible for all of the above? No. But he was close. Did he invent every great idea of the past 20 years? No. He has always been quick to deflect credit to his stepfather, John Bickford; his boss, Rick Hendrick; and lengthy conversations of advice from his old friend and rival, Dale Earnhardt.

But there is no question that he was clear-cut leader of the charge. Indy car racing's self-mutilation was spurred in no small part because a broken driver ladder had denied Gordon, an Indiana resident, his Indy 500 dreams and forced him into stock cars. ESPN's decision to create programming that is now commonplace among other networks was due in part because sponsors were clamoring for avenues to reach the exploding female and West Coast audience that Gordon was attracting.

He and his team also elevated the sport by upping their asks. It was Gordon's team that invented set-time media availability during race weekends. Heck, he was the first driver to have a "team." They started to sidestep local radio and newspapers, choosing instead to shoot for "Good Morning America" and GQ. Meanwhile, his real team -- the Rainbow Warriors -- were revolutionizing the way pit stops were executed. They worked out together. They ran weird drills. They watched game film like a football team.

It all created tension and eye rolls from his rivals and old-school NASCAR fans. But today it is all standard operating procedure. Why?

"Because he kicked everyone's butts all the time!" Gordon's former teammate (and sometimes bitter rival) Terry Labonte said with a hearty chuckle last fall. "The guys who change the game don't come around very often. But Jeff is one of those guys. And everyone in this sport has benefited from it."

Of the 43 men who were in the field that cold day in Atlanta on Nov. 15, 1992, Gordon is the only one still competing, unless you count Ken Schrader running dirt tracks or Michael Waltrip on "Dancing With the Stars." He's been around so long that he's gone from being the person so many wanted to blame for the sport becoming too corporate to becoming the guy who is now a connection back to the good old days.

That day in Atlanta, during the prerace drivers meeting, those men gave Richard Petty a standing ovation as The King made his final start. He looked tired and old. A legend who hadn't won in nearly eight years, ready to hang up his helmet and officially take his place among NASCAR's Mount Rushmore.

This year, Gordon deserves the same applause. Not just from the drivers in the race, but from everyone, no matter if that person wore a Rainbow Warriors T-shirt, a Fans Against Gordon T-shirt, or the uniform of a rival team.

The man we applaud won't look decrepit and worn out. Betrayed only by a pesky bad back, he is as relevant now as he was during his heyday of the late 1990s. Last year, as he turned 43, he won four races and nearly won a championship, his greatest thrill coming from being able to share his success with his children, now old enough to comprehend their dad's greatness. His mullet replaced with graying temples, he will enter this, his final full-time season, as a title favorite once again and doing exactly what he'd always so desperately wanted: leaving on his own terms.

Whether that fifth Cup finally happens, whether he adds to his 92 wins, third all-time, is really irrelevant. What matters is the opportunity to shake the hand of he who has created so much opportunity.

We are rarely given the chance to personally thank the titans before they ascend to be with the statues. In 2015, Jeff Gordon is giving us that chance.