When Jeff Gordon arrived in what was then called the Winston Cup series, he was the everything.
He was the highest-paid rookie -- the first bonus baby after Rick Hendrick paid him an unprecedented retainer of $750,000. He was the most TV-savvy driver since Darrell Waltrip. And he was the most unlike Dale Earnhardt of any driver in the field because he was more interested in running shoes and video games than cowboy boots and hunting.
Gordon was also one of the most ridiculed drivers in the garage. Writers made fun of his "learner's permit mustache" and Earnhardt dubbed him Wonder Boy.
When Gordon crashed regularly in his rookie season, there was some doubt if he would ever win a points race despite quickly proving his talent by winning a 125-mile qualifying race at the Daytona International Speedway at age 22 and finishing fifth in his first Daytona 500.
Soon enough, when the kid from northern California by way of Indiana did win, he won big. His first two victories in his sophomore season were the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400. Like so many great athletes, Gordon began making a big impact on NASCAR from the moment he set foot in the garage.
On Sunday, Gordon will go after the most unlikely of career endings in motor racing. He'll try to win his fourth series championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in his final race. His is one of four deeply resonant storylines among the finalists in the championship round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Gordon will have to beat defending champ Kevin Harvick, the hard-nosed kid from southern California who has been on his game all season. Gordon will have to shut down the comeback story of Kyle Busch, who has been uncharacteristically patient and smart after returning from serious leg and foot injuries following a midsummer hot streak.
And he'll have to beat sentimental favorite Martin Truex Jr., who spent last year battling career woes and his girlfriend's ongoing bout with cancer.
But all of the competitors will get another chance to win the Chase next season except Gordon.
"There's always pressure," Gordon said in the Thursday champions press conference. "I'm looking at it as going out in an exciting and fun way. By winning at Martinsville to put us in this, that was just incredible. That was a win right there.
"But if you think our team isn't focused on this race on Sunday, you'd be mistaken. We all want it really badly and we know it won't come easily. But as for pressure, we often have big races and big moments in races."
Whether Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team rise to the top of the heap for one last time in a race where the champion is expected to also be the race winner, the driver will move on in favor of a broadcast career after having brought NASCAR into prime time.
When the first multiyear blanket contract was signed with TV executives to the tune of $2.4 billion before the 2001 season, it was the presence of an accomplished young Gordon, as comfortable on the David Letterman Show as he was in the cockpit, who helped drive the deal as much as seven-time champ Earnhardt.
By then, a handsome, clean shaven Gordon had developed two major followings. There were the fans who loved him, who were mostly young and female, and there were the fans who booed him loudly because they favored the old-school approach.
"The King," Richard Petty, brought NASCAR out of the backwoods with his popularity, charisma and seven championships. "The Intimidator," Dale Earnhardt, divided and conquered by his extraordinary talent and willingness to run closely on superspeedways en route to seven championships.
Gordon won four championships by age 30 just by being himself and he broadened the NASCAR fan base because of his youth, Christian beliefs and an approach that was far more typical of California than the Southeast.
There was never anything plastic about Gordon, who was comfortable enough with himself to quickly adapt to stardom. After his fourth title in 2001, Gordon was asked if he consciously tried to build an image.
"I'm really doing what my heart and mind is leading me to do," he said. "I didn't plan the image. 'OK, I want to be this, this and this.' I didn't do that. I'm a nice guy. I've always been clean cut and my parents taught me not to swear and to respect people. To me, it's my personality and not an image."
Oddly enough, Earnhardt and Gordon became fast friends -- a friendship that survived Gordon putting the black No. 3 Chevy on its roof at Daytona en route to his first Daytona 500 victory, making the Man in Black wait yet another year to get his first.
Gordon had the skill and the guts to race Earnhardt at close quarters, which the older driver relished in his competitors. But out of the car, Earnhardt ribbed Gordon a lot, especially after he narrowly lost an eighth championship when Gordon won his first.
"They'll be drinking milk instead of champagne at the champions table in New York," Earnhardt said.
But Gordon was never a pushover. It was Gordon who pioneered the first payback during the Chase that took a driver out of the running when he deliberately crashed Clint Bowyer in 2012. Despite that incident and the occasional outbreaks of anger and shoving matches, the respect for Gordon's driving ability and his constant, successful effort to represent NASCAR well continues to bring him a lot of respect in the garage.
When the lights finally go dim at Homestead on Sunday evening, Gordon will have left his chosen sport better off than when he arrived as an awkward young man, albeit highly touted, who was simply looking to win races.