HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — It’s a Hall of Fame career that includes four championships, 93 victories and more than $150 million in winnings. He’s got a beautiful family, a reputation as one of the good guys and a popularity that transcends NASCAR.
Now Jeff Gordon has a chance to write the ultimate Hollywood ending to what’s already an illustrious career.
Gordon will retire after Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he pushed aside a season of mediocrity and clawed his way into the championship picture. A win this month at Martinsville Speedway – the only victory of his 23rd season – put Gordon in the field of four who will race for the Sprint Cup title.
In this winner-take-all format, Gordon simply has to finish higher than reigning champion Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. to capture the fifth title that has eluded him for 14 years. Capturing his first title since 2001 in his final race would put Gordon in an elite group of athletes who went out on top: John Elway, David Robinson, Jerome Bettis and Bill Russell, just to name a few.
Asked where winning the title on his final day of work would rank in career that stamped him on the short list of all-time greats, Gordon was left speechless.
“Is that even a question? That’s crazy. I mean, that’s life changing,” he said. “I’m sure it’s been done in some sport, but I don’t think it’s ever been done in this sport. You know, right now I’m not even thinking and fathoming that. That’s too much for me to think about. I have no idea. It would be the best one I ever did, I can tell you that.”
Gordon beat long odds just to race for a championship. Last year was the season he could have – maybe even should have – won title number five. But he was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship a week before the finale in a crushing end to his best season in at least seven years.
He announced in January that this year would be his last in the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet, and most everyone believed he’d cap this final ride with another amazing year on the track.
Instead, this farewell tour had been just OK, and when he slipped through to the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs, he was winless on the year. Then a feud between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano handed Gordon the biggest gift in a season in which he’s been presented with mementos at nearly every track.
Logano was headed toward a win at Martinsville until Kenseth deliberately wrecked him. It opened the door for Gordon to grab his ninth career Martinsville victory and an automatic berth into Sunday’s final four. He celebrated that win as if it was the first victory of his career. Always known for his emotion, Gordon was in tears when he embraced wife, Ingrid, and children Ella and Leo. Most of his career achievements came before he married his wife, and his family has never experienced a championship.
That win turned the final three weeks of his career into a whirlwind of party planning and preparing to host family and friends on Sunday. With anticipation growing, Gordon needed three police escorts to navigate the crowd smothering his Hendrick Motorsports crew and car on Saturday.
“Everybody’s career comes to an end, he’s going out strong,” said seven-time champion Richard Petty, who faded and was no longer competitive when he finally climbed from his car in the 1992 season finale – when Gordon made his Cup debut.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing him win the championship because he’s meant so much to NASCAR over the years.”
Born in California, Gordon and his family moved to Indiana when it became apparent he was a special talent. He broke into NASCAR as a fresh-faced – albeit mustachioed – well-spoken and savvy role model who could have passed as Tom Cruise’s hot shot “Cole Trickle” character in “Days of Thunder” that helped push NASCAR’s popularity two years earlier.
Gordon was the first driver to resonate on Madison Avenue, and he quickly became a household name. The only NASCAR driver to host “Saturday Night Live,” Gordon was name-dropped in a song by rapper Nelly, became a nationally recognized Pepsi spokesman and proved he can gracefully move from his fire suit to a business suit for any occasion.
“When you can deal with a professional athlete and you can go 23 years and you don’t need a lawyer, you can take a handshake and we’ve never had a disagreement … he’s a rare commodity,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “More than the wins, the friendship means the most to me. He’s a unique guy. I mean, never anything about money, just, he’s just special.”
Now 44 with an aching back, Gordon will run one more race that could put the final title on a legendary resume. He won three Daytona 500s, five Brickyard 400s, ranks third behind Petty and Dale Earnhardt on the career wins list and his 796 consecutive starts are a NASCAR record.
He’ll move into the broadcast booth next season with Fox and remain involved with Hendrick in various projects.
Although he showed Saturday that his car is fast enough to win – he had the best 10-lap average in final practice – he’s loose and approaching this last chance as if he’s playing with house money. Gordon said he’ll listen to music on the advice of teammate Jimmie Johnson in an attempt to tune out any distractions, then he’ll go for broke.
“I’m having the time of my life,” he said. “Just because you’re playing with house money doesn’t mean you don’t want it bad. I want it really, really bad. Our team wants it really, really bad.
“There’s going to be some insanity and I’m just taking it all in and being really calm and cool about it all. As long as I get to do my job and find some ways in between that to block some things out, get my mind in the right place. Yeah, I mean, things are good.”