Hold your applause, NASCAR nation. Jeff Gordon isn’t ready for your rocking chairs, keys to the city, commemorative plaques or any other farewell gifts during the final season of his magnificent career.
Gordon can open a museum with all the trophies he’s accumulated during his 22-year career that included four Sprint Cup championships and 92 race wins, third-most in history.
Gordon, who more than any other figure transformed stock-car racing from a regional pastime in the Southeast to a coast-to-coast spectacle, has a simple request from those wanting to pay homage as he visits Sprint Cup tracks for the final time in the No. 24 Chevrolet.
“Entire grandstands full of people is very acceptable to me,” said Gordon, who last month announced his retirement effective at the end of the 2015 season. “More people watching from home is very acceptable to me.”
Before he basks in adulation, Gordon wants to devote full attention to winning a fifth Sprint Cup title. He came close a year ago, winning four races — his most since 2007 — including the spring race at Kansas Speedway. He led the Chase for the Sprint Cup with three weeks to go before Brad Keselowski crashed into him at Texas, and the two nearly came to blows afterward.
In fact, Gordon’s decision to retire at the end of this season was cemented not because he was struggling at age 43, but because he was at the top of his game. It was only fitting that he won his 77th career pole (also third all-time most) for Sunday’s Daytona 500, a race he has won three times, including from the pole in 1999.
“I really was leaning toward this at the beginning of 2014,” Gordon said of retirement, “but didn’t get serious until midway of ’14. The great stretch and the run we had and how good we were last year confirmed things even more for me.
“I was like, ‘You know what?’ This is all I could ask for is to be at this point … 20-plus years into my career and be that competitive week in and week out. I was almost ready to walk away right then. But I wanted to give one more year to my team, to (owner) Rick (Hendrick), to the sponsors, to the fans, my family and myself.
“Last year … built my confidence up. I felt like I was as good as anybody out there or as good as I’ve ever been because I’ve invested in this team, and I feel like we’re going to be able to continue that momentum in 2015. That’s all I ask for. Last year gave me that inspiration that that can happen again this year.”
Gordon made his Sprint Cup debut in the 1992 season finale at Atlanta, which happened to be the final race for NASCAR legend Richard Petty, the sport’s all-time leader with 200 wins.
The sport in the 1990s was dominated by good ol’ boys like Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and a fella named Dale Earnhardt, who won four of his seven championships during 1990-1994.
Along came Gordon, a clean-cut, well-spoken, open-wheel racer from California who became the antithesis of the gruff Earnhardt.
Gordon, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, gave Earnhardt and his loyal fans a worthy adversary, winning his first championship in 1995 at 24 years old. He won 10 races and the 1997 championship and followed it by winning 13 races and the 1998 championship.
Gordon and Earnhardt developed a mutual respect during their rivalry.
“When you’re racing with one of the all-time greats, and he’s chasing you instead of you chasing him, that earns a lot of respect,” Gordon said. “At the time, I probably didn’t get to understand that. But years later, when his fans would come to me and say, ‘Listen, I was not a fan of yours. I was a fan of Dale’s, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for what you do on the racetrack because you’re beating my guy.’ And it takes years and years and years for that to kind of come full circle.”
Just as important, Gordon attracted fans, sponsors and markets that Earnhardt, Elliott and even Petty hadn’t reached.
“Dale Earnhardt, in my opinion, would have never been what he was toward the end of his career if Jeff Gordon hadn’t come into the sport,” said reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, who took the seat of Earnhardt upon his death in 2001.
“When you look at the Fortune 500 companies and the things that it brought to Earnhardt because of the attention that Jeff Gordon brought to the sport, it took Earnhardt to another level. Then you had brands like Good Wrench and Wrangler that were like the good old boy brands that wanted to get into that marketing more with the new wave and new era.
“Earnhardt was a huge part of the sport. But if you look at the end of those late ’90s, early 2000 up until 2001, I mean if you look at the leap that Earnhardt’s career took and his wealth, and the sponsors and the things that he had, a lot of that, in my opinion, had to do with Jeff Gordon.”
It was no coincidence that during Gordon’s heyday, NASCAR would expand from its Southern roots.
It dropped Tobacco Road outposts such as Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, N.C., and eliminated second races at Darlington, S.C., and Atlanta and expanded to New Hampshire in 1993, Indianapolis in 1994, Texas and Southern California in 1997, Las Vegas in 1998, and Chicago and Kansas in 2001.
And television coverage exploded from obscure cable and tape-delayed network telecasts to packages now totaling $8.2 billion with Fox and NBC for the next 10 years.
Gordon tried to downplay his impact on NASCAR’s boom years of the late 1990s.
“Yeah, I was the top guy at that time when it was all blowing up and being exposed to more people,” said Gordon, who won the first two Sprint Cup races at Kansas Speedway. “But I don’t look at it as I’m the one that made it more visible. I just feel like I was there at the right time and the right place and the right car and the right team.”
Just as Gordon grew up admiring his open-wheel heroes like A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser, he spawned a generation of stock-car drivers who wanted to be the next Jeff Gordon.
Joey Logano grew up in Connecticut, far from the heart of traditional NASCAR country, but Gordon was his idol.
“I watched him when I was 6 years old when he first started, and I was a big Jeff Gordon fan,” Logano said. “Why? Because he was the young guy out there. I rooted for him. You never think then that you are going to race against him someday or race against him for wins like we did in Texas or for a championship like we did last year.
“When you are a kid watching whatever your favorite sport is, you typically don’t get to play with or against that guy because they are usually retired by then. Racing is cool because you get to race against your childhood heroes. Hopefully there is some kid out there racing quarter midgets right now looking at me that someday will kick my butt.”
Gordon also put Jimmie Johnson in a Hendrick Motorsports car, plucking him from St. Joseph-based Herzog Motorsports.
“Gosh, he’s done so much on so many levels, and I think now since we know it’s his final year, we’re all looking back and having some ‘aha’ moments, like, wow, he really was instrumental in helping car owners and sponsors realize there are drivers far and wide that can come in and be competitive,” said Johnson, a six-time Sprint Cup champion.
“I look at my own arc in life and in motorsports, and the fact that he gave me my chance, created a team for me to go racing, and then what has happened from there.”
If nothing else, Jeff Gordon is going to enjoy this final ride. He dearly wants to win that fifth championship and maybe join Petty (200) and David Pearson (105) as the only drivers with 100 wins. But whatever happens, he’s going to have fun.
“Yes, I want to have a great year,” he said. “Right now I feel good about it because of the way we ran in ’14, but if we don’t, it’s still a heck of a career. I’m going to try to go out and enjoy myself more than I normally do.
“Normally, I just take it so darn seriously that sometimes no matter how we run, good or bad, I don’t always enjoy it to the fullest. I want to enjoy this season to the fullest. I want my family around me, being a part of it, enjoying it. Yeah, I’m looking forward to going to the track and smiling, lots of reminiscing, and enjoying the people and friendships that I’ve made over the years as well as getting the most out of that race car with my team. I hope all of those things can come together.”
That’s why Gordon will postpone the retirement ceremonies until next year. Although at first he indicated he might compete in selected races on a part-time basis next year, Gordon amended that Thursday, calling it “highly unlikely” he would do so.
“My plan is that I’ll be back at the track in 2016 doing all kinds of things with the fans,” said Gordon, who is a stakeholder in Hendrick Motorsports. “I’ll be a major fixture at the track quite a bit in 2016.
“That’s something we’re working through with the tracks now and doing just a full-on fan experience with people that have been loyal and individual fans of the sport and myself for many years. That’s what I want to do in return.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Thursday: Budweiser Duel at Daytona, Daytona International Speedway, 6 p.m. FS1
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Friday: NextEra Energy Resources 250, Daytona International Speedway, 6:30 p.m. FS1
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Saturday: Alert Today Florida 300, Daytona International Speedway, 2:30 p.m. FS1
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Sunday: Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway, noon FOX