Jeff Gordon emerged from the window of his No. 24 car and leaned against the driver’s door. Over his left shoulder, his number was painted into the infield grass at Kansas Speedway — a site that has produced three career victories.
His final appearance here — at least as a full-time driver after he announced his retirement earlier this year — provided a much less satisfying conclusion.
Gordon finished 10th on Sunday in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400.
“Absolutely horrible,” Gordon said. “We were absolutely as far off as you can be. I don’t know. We qualified amazing. ... That was one of the hardest top-10s I’ve ever had to go through.
“I’m proud of my team. They fought hard, but, God, that was ugly.”
The numbers were slightly less appalling. Gordon actually moved up to sixth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Contender Round standings. The top eight drivers after next weekend’s race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway qualify for the Eliminator Round.
Among the 12 drivers who qualified for the Contender Round, Gordon was seventh Sunday.
“We just gotta go be aggressive,” Gordon said. “I feel very confident in my restrictor-plate program and how fast the cars are. And now, with our pit crew and the communication and the way the team’s performing and executing, I think I’m more optimistic about that (next) race than I was these last two, in all honesty. But it’s just the unknown that throws a wrench in that.”
Gordon is 24 points behind points leader Joey Logano, who won Sunday’s race. Gordon holds only a one-point cushion on eighth-place Martin Truex Jr., and he’s only seven ahead of ninth-place Kyle Busch.
Asked what he expected it would take next week to advance to the Eliminator Round, Gordon replied, “Win. I mean, I know we don’t have to, but the thing is, you have to approach it like you do. You have to go out there and battle.”
Gordon praised his team for doing precisely that — battling — through a difficult day. He started sixth Sunday, but after the initial 15 laps, he was running outside of the top 10 for most of the race until its conclusion.
But that wasn’t enough to salvage a positive spin on his potential final Kansas Speedway appearance.
“I hate it wasn’t better than that,” said Gordon, who won the first two Cup races at Kansas in 2001 and 2002 and the inaugural night race in 2014. “Ever since they repaved and we’ve been running steel tires instead of rubber tires, it’s not been my cup of tea. But we were able to get a win here last year and get some finishes, but it’s been real edgy doing it. And trying to find the balance has been hard.
“This weekend, I don’t know, we just never could get the front of the car to turn. That really made us struggle.”