NEW YORK — After Jeff Gordon’s final Sprint Cup Series race Sunday, more than 100 of his family members and friends will gather at a party in downtown Miami to share the end of a landmark day — and career — with Gordon.

Now, they may have something else to celebrate: a fifth championship.

It would be hard to imagine such a scene without Gordon’s parents, stepfather John Bickford and mother Carol. But there was a period in Gordon’s otherwise golden career during which many would have assumed they would not be included in what is likely to be one of the racing year’s biggest parties.

In the careers of many successful athletes, there are dark clouds, and for Gordon those hovered in the background over several years, generally beginning with his first championship in 1995 and, fortunately for almost everyone around him, ending in 2002, a year after he scored his fourth title.

As Gordon, who won the Sprint Cup rookie of the year title in 1993 and first race in 1994, began the rocket ride that would carry him to international motor sports superstardom, there was a parallel — and toxic — journey developing. Gordon, or “Wonder Boy” as many on the circuit called him, seeing a bright future and the expanded responsibilities and dramatic change that would come with it, looked to move away from a family structure that had defined his life from the age of 4 months.

In 1995, approaching his first of four championships, Gordon began a separation process from his parents, one that, he admitted, saddled him with an anvil’s weight of guilt.

“I remember sitting on my parents’ back porch that day,” Gordon told USA TODAY Sports. “I had written down all these things I had issues with that they were doing that I felt that we needed to hire other people to do. At the end of that meeting, John looked at me and said, ‘Well, you pretty much just listed everything that I do, so it sounds to me like you just need me to step aside and let somebody else do this.’

“I said, ‘Uh, yeah, I guess it’s kind of something like that,’ ” Gordon said. “The meeting didn’t go well, and it was a clean cut.”

Describing the moment, he brought his right arm up and down in a chopping motion and said, “It was like this, whack!”

His parents would miss some of the defining moments in Gordon’s career.

Racing beginnings

Bickford, who came into Carol’s life when Jeff was 4 months old, was the godfather of Gordon’s racing career. He put 5-year-old Jeff on the track with older racers and guided his career from the first green flag to the first Sprint Cup checkered flag, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He put Gordon in a quarter-midget racer at a 1/20th-mile quarter-midget dirt track in Rio Linda, Calif., — then known as Cracker Jack Track — and Gordon learned quickly. Hundreds of wins in quarter-midget followed.

“I was there the first day he came to the track,” track official Tom Van Inwagen told USA TODAY Sports. “…John put him in a car more than any other person I’ve known. He’d pick him up from school and they’d go do laps. When he got here, he already had a ton of laps in a car.

“… It takes dedication. … Between John being involved and with what Jeff was able to do, they had it.”

Gordon already knew the racetrack flag colors, having learned on a makeshift track at a nearby fairgrounds lot.

“We did that every chance we got,” Carol Bickford told USA TODAY Sports. “We had friends of ours who had kids about that age, and we’d invite them over. Just about everybody brought their kids out, and not one of them would get in a quarter-midget. Jeff got in without much hesitation.”

As Gordon continued winning, the family decided to move to Pittsboro, Ind., where Gordon, then 14, could compete against stiffer competition. Just eight years later, he had reached the nation’s higest level of stock-car racing, notched seven top-fives in 30 starts and was named rookie of the year.

It was clear to almost everyone in the sport that he could be the star of his racing generation. That first win in 1994 and his riveting victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway later that year — the first of a record five he would win just a few miles from where he grew up in Pittsboro — set the stage for a two-decade run of success through the sport and began a flow of dollars that would soon require the involvement of several accountants.

“Mom was sitting there, and she added a little to the discussion,” Gordon said. “I didn’t realize how much it meant for John to be involved in that position. I looked at him as the guy who ran our racing team, was involved in the setups of the cars — basically, a car guy. I felt like when it started getting further away from him doing that part of it that the other wasn’t something he was interested in doing and maybe he had other things he wanted to do.

“I was wrong. He really enjoyed what he was doing more so than I ever imagined. He liked being involved. It was fun and challenging and exciting.

“There were some things then that needed to be discussed, to be expressed. I’m usually a person who doesn’t have any regrets about things I’ve done, but I do sometimes have regrets about how I’ve done them. What happened was going to happen, but there was a more respectful, different way of going about it.”

PHOTOS: Jeff Gordon through the years

Reconciling and making amends

Gordon was just 23 and full of himself at that point in his career. He had married Brooke Sealey, a former Miss Winston victory lane beauty queen, in 1994. They had collapsed into each other’s arms in tears when Gordon scored his first win in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Gordon resting his head on Sealey’s chest in exhaustion after completing NASCAR’s longest race as the victory lane celebration began.

Theirs seemingly was a fairy tale marriage, but it was destined for rocky shoals. It would end with Sealey filing for divorce in 2002 and the couple agreeing to a settlement that awarded Sealey $15.3 million the next year.

As Sealey became more of a force in Gordon’s life in the early years of their relationship and later marriage, the Bickfords faded into the background, a juxtaposition Gordon would come to regret greatly even as his racing career exploded with three more championships in 1997, 1998 and 2001.

The Bickfords were missing from much of that joy. Although their communication link with Gordon had not been severed, they largely were on the outside looking in.

When Gordon left the Sprint Cup awards banquet in 2001 with the big trophy but an empty feeling, he began moving toward a different future.

“There were a lot of things that were building up inside of me that made me realize I wasn’t going down the path that I envisioned,” Gordon said. “I had just won the championship in 2001. This should be the greatest time of my life. I wasn’t feeling that. There was something missing.

“When I started adding things together and started trying to figure out what was going on, it was more than what was happening between me and Brooke. I didn’t stay connected with friends. I wasn’t where I wanted to be in relation to my parents. I started realizing how important that was to me. I kind of felt like the only way to fully reconnect to that was to make a big change in my life.”

Gordon talked to his parents and made amends, and John Bickford returned to the place he had been for most of Gordon’s life — the guy in charge. He now is president of Jeff Gordon, Inc.

“I had a lot of stress and guilt the entire time that my parents and I had our — I don’t know what I should call it — where they were not working with me and for me the way they had,” Gordon said. “Even though I went forward with it and it happened, I was carrying a lot of guilt, like, ‘Gosh, that didn’t go the way I wanted it to go.’

“Had we done a more natural progression of it, they would have been fine. I think they knew I was being pushed from the outside and that the things I was saying were not necessarily the way I typically would have gone about things. They weren’t happy about that. Because it was coming from me, it hurt them even more.

“I thought later that maybe we could piece it back together, but I realized I had hurt them too much. Too much had been said. Too much had been done.”

Since the reconciliation, the Bickfords, Gordon, his second wife, Ingrid, and their children, Ella and Leo, have been close. In this final season of competition for Gordon, everyone has been along for the ride.

One of the year’s big moments — in a season of them — occurred June 14 in Rio Linda, when the Bickfords accompanied Gordon on a return visit to Roy Hayer Memorial Speedway (formerly Cracker Jack), the tiny track where Gordon started racing.

It was a rare moment for Gordon, now 44, and his parents, an opportunity to reconnect with friends from those long-ago years. The Bickfords clearly were in their element, moving from family to family around the track as they shared stories and memories of the days when their children raced against each other. The jokes — and the smiles — were frequent.

“To have them there at Rio Linda knowing that I’m going to be closing out my career and having the relationship where it is today was unbelievable,” Gordon said. “I don’t even know if our relationship would be like it is today if it weren’t for the experience we went through. I hate we went through it and went through it the way we did, but we’re way stronger now because of it.”

Follow Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree

PHOTOS: NASCAR Cup champions