I myself am a Jeff Gordon fan. I have been a fan of the sport since 2002, and have watched that #24 run competitively the last 13 years. Of course this year is his last season, which is truly the end of an era. Some fans may not like Gordon for various reasons, but the fact is Jeff Gordon is the last 'true' legend in NASCAR.
Now, before I dive in, I do want to state that there will be future 'legends' of NASCAR. What I mean by true legend is a guy that raced in some of the golden years. Gordon helped catapult NASCAR to what it is today. NASCAR has become a sport that simply 'is what it is', nowadays. Gordon is the last driver running in my opinion that actually pushed NASCAR to a national sport. Without Gordon half the garage may have never found their way to stock car racing. Don't get me wrong Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Dale Jr., all have their place in history, but none will compare to Gordon's legacy.
Jeff Gordon was the first Kyle Larson before Kyle Larson was Kyle Larson. Gordon came from dirt racing in the west and mid-west, and eventually came to the east coast for stock car racing. Gordon's aspirations quickly shifted from Indy to NASCAR. Gordon made his first start in Richard Petty's last race, who would have thought one legend was passing the torch to another. Gordon quickly found success in the Cup Series and won his first championship in just his third season with Hendrick Motorsports (1995). Gordon went on to win three more championships in the next 6 years ('97, '98, '01).
Now, in 2015 Gordon is still considered a top talent in the garage and has been to victory lane in 19 of his 22 full seasons completed. Gordon has 92 wins, 322 top-5's, and 462 top-10's, which put him among NASCAR's elite. What pushes Gordon to a legendary status is not his statistics, it is his impact to the sport. Gordon was the first driver from the west coast to become a face of NASCAR. Gordon showed that the 'good ole boys' can be beat by the 'city slicker' westerners. Gordon was a change of pace, to the sport born and raised in the South. He quickly become a rival of some sort, since he was the city boy that could beat everyone. Gordon was beating the likes of Earnhardt, Wallace, and Jarrett, all names that had made their mark in the sport.
Gordon also took the sport mainstream. Gordon did things that had never really been done before. Yes, drivers had taken part in country songs and made appearances occasionally, but Gordon was more than a driver being a guest on a show, he was a personality. 'Wonder Boy' has Earnhardt Sr. called him, was likable on various levels. He was great with sponsors, fans, and of course got the job done on track. Gordon showed that not every NASCAR driver was a beer drinking, grease covered, garage monkey that came from the hills of moonshine country. He had a likable smile, Hollywood hair, and just enough personality to separate him from other drivers.
Overall, my reasoning for why Gordon is the last 'true legend', is that Gordon is the last driver running that elevated the sport. Yes, drivers like Johnson, Harvick, Elliot, and Logano, are amazing drivers but without Gordon and others alike, they may never be here. Gordon opened the door for non-southerners to make a living in stock car racing. Gordon also took the sport to new levels. All of sudden celebrities and non-traditional fans could relate to the mainstream attitude Gordon has. Commercials, guest appearances, and wins kept adding to Gordon's popularity off the track. There are still drivers that are helping out sport grow, but nothing compared to what Gordon helped accomplish. He is the last true legend that continues to be a face of NASCAR, and will always be remembered for being the kid that rocked the south in the 90's.