Cain: Gordon walks away on cloud nine even without another title – Nascar
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jeff Gordon sat in his parked silver No. 24 Chevrolet for an extended time on pit road following Sunday’s season-ending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race; his helmet on, his heart still beating fast.
After several minutes, he exited his race car for the final time in 23 years of amazing, highest-level effort after a sixth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway — good enough for third place in his final Sprint Cup championship run. But instead of getting emotional about the end of his certain Hall-of-Fame career, the four-time champ found himself immediately reassuring others as the sellout crowd cheered loudly.
Gordon’s only team owner, Rick Hendrick, inserted himself between television interviews for an embrace with Gordon, the two speaking privately at length.
“I’m real happy for him,” Hendrick said. “I told him I loved him. And he said he loved me. I thanked him for all the years.”
Hendrick then walked away with Gordon’s final race helmet, a gift the driver had planned for some time.
Moments later Gordon’s wife, Ingrid, arrived at his side on pit road for a kiss and long hug. Then she looked up into the sky, tears in her eyes, as Gordon, 44, bent down and embraced his children, Ella, 8, and Leo, 5.
Gordon was as strong and vibrant in his goodbye as he was throughout a 93-win, high-achieving career that started out mustachioed and celebrated, Dale Earnhardt milquetoasted and, finally, fittingly much-appreciated.
RELATED: Full coverage of Gordon’s final race
All those who booed the kid who won too much, cheered the man who transformed the sport. It was a two-way street this weekend in South Florida.
“Well, we all know nothing would have been quite better than the win,” Gordon said. “But I’ve learned a lot in life, and there’s no such thing as a perfect day and a perfect life. Just like there’s no such thing as a perfect race car. They’re really close and good and at times better than the rest, but it doesn’t mean that they’re ever perfect.”
Throughout the weekend Gordon was acknowledged and honored by everyone who knew him from family, to sponsors to his fiercest competitors.
During the rain-delayed driver introduction session, Formula One champ Lewis Hamilton stood with Gordon and took photos with the four-time NASCAR champ, looking far more fan than racing champion himself. Several IndyCar Series drivers made the trip to South Florida to bid Gordon goodbye, including Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden.
“Of course,” Mario Andretti said of attending the race to support Gordon. “He’s an icon. Not just the personality he brought to the sport as a racer, but as a person himself. He’s been a big contributor to NASCAR’s personality, no doubt about it. He will be missed, but he won’t be going too far away.
“He’s certainly kept up the time. He’s still a young man and he’s retiring relatively young, which is wonderful. He’s on top of his game and you can’t do any better than that. He’s living a wonderful life and he’s the envy of a lot of people for what he’s done. I just wish him well.”
Gordon conceded he was impressed and endeared by the pair’s presence at his celebrated final race.
“I do believe he’s the greatest driver of all time,” Gordon said of Andretti. “And Lewis, I met at the Super Bowl a couple years ago. I’m a big fan of that sport. I was already a fan of his and he won the championship and we stayed in touch. I was trying to get him to come to a race and today was the race he could come to.
” … I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m in their league, but I have a ton of respect for them and am so happy they were here today.”
After an emotional driver introduction ceremony, Gordon walked with his daughter Ella down pit road, waving to the sellout crowd that would surprise him at race start with front grandstands fan placards that spelled out, “Thank You Jeff. 24Ever”
As Gordon’s car rolled off pit road to start the race, pit crew members from all the teams stood along the pit wall to clap and honor him.
WATCH: Pit crews honor Gordon
Earlier, Gordon’s afternoon included a standing ovation at the driver’s meeting and a short clip of Gordon, showing him from his earliest open-wheel days to his NASCAR entree and some of his finest multiple winning moments.
The support was a theme throughout the weekend. Fans crowded around Gordon’s team hauler in the infield, and he had to have security personnel from the South Miami Police guard his No. 24 as it snaked through the garage for final inspection Sunday morning.
About 100 fans stood behind temporary barriers at Gordon’s team transporter in the garage hoping for a glimpse of the real thing.
Carla Piccarreto and her 24-year-old son James traveled to South Florida from upstate New York and had been standing at Gordon’s team transporter since the garage opened — about three hours. They’d still not seen Gordon by race morning but were intent to wait it out for him.
“Yesterday we saw the crowd swarm him, chanting his name and we were afraid for him,” Carla said, smiling.
Standing next to her, Joe Fiorello, 39, of Delray Beach, Florida, was wearing his best — if faded, and mustard-stained — original Jeff Gordon T-shirt. Jeffrey Jones was in the group, as well, holding a custom-made guitar shaped in a 24. He gave one to Hendrick earlier in the week and left a rainbow-colored version with the team for Gordon.
Timothy and Britney Prior were also standing outside Gordon’s team hauler hoping for a photo, autograph or handshake. They drove 14 hours from Danville, Virginia, to attend the event and support their favorite driver.
The couple is so committed that Timothy’s back is completely tattooed with Gordon’s cars and even Gordon’s signature, something they got back in 2011.
While the couple didn’t have a chance to see their favorite driver in the garage, they did after the race — and Gordon had Timothy tag along to his post-race press conference, where he introduced the longtime supporter.
“You want to talk about commitment and a loyal fan and a nice guy, this guy is awesome,” Gordon said. “Now that right there, folks, that’s commitment. That is commitment.
“But I just happened to run into him on the way in here, and I just wanted him to be here and be a part of it because he’s a huge fan, and I appreciate him and all of our fans so much, especially what I saw this weekend.”
As Gordon spoke to the media after the race, he seemed truly at peace, extremely happy and, as we know, as accomplished a modern-day driver as one could be. His final race was fitting and he will leave South Florida — after a big party Sunday night — feeling fulfilled, respected and loved.
“That sendoff at the drivers’ meeting, you know, drivers are so competitive, and they don’t show ‑‑ they might have it inside them, but to show it publicly, their appreciation for other competitors, just doesn’t happen like that very often, and I really, really appreciate it very, very much,” Gordon said. “I’m looking forward to the rest of the evening, as well.
“Talking more about my career and the moments and what it’s all meant to me, this is why me and my mom having this conversation this morning was so important to me. We talked about the television station that filmed my quarter midget race when I was like 6 years old and I never understood why. I found out I was on the cover of a kids magazine with my quarter midget.
“To come from that and have this … it blows my mind. Just being here and part of my day, to wrap up this amazing career it didn’t take a championship for me to feel like I’m on top of the world.”