Jeff Gordon didn’t want rocking chair gifts or mass goodbyes when he announced this would be his last season as a full-time driver.
But he hasn’t been able to control that. He’s gotten gifts ranging from a customized blackjack table from Las Vegas Motor Speedway to 96 bottles of bourbon (four sets of 24 bottles a piece) from Kentucky Speedway.
The latest presentation happened Friday at Martinsville Speedway, which commemorated Gordon’s eight victories at the track with an eight-car model train set. A real train passes along the track’s backstretch, a signature part of what’s known as “The Paperclip.”
The 44-year-old Gordon genuinely enjoyed the presentation and, despite his preseason wishes, is soaking everything in as his racing days are coming to an end.
For Gordon, it’s easier to do considering he’s still one of eight drivers in contention for a championship. If he wasn’t, the dog-and-pony shows every race weekend might have a different feel, somewhat of a weekly reminder that he wasn’t as competitive as he’d hoped to be in his final season.
... Our team has really stepped up since the Chase started. I’ve said all along if we can make it to this round, we have an excellent opportunity with the three tracks in this round. Right now, I’m just focused on Martinsville. See what happens here and then we’ll go focus on Texas.
That’s certainly what Gordon wanted to avoid.
“I said before the season I wanted to go out in the sport still being competitive and hopefully on top,” said Gordon, who starts fifth in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500. “It’d be bittersweet to hope for that and plan for that and talk about that and then walk out not even being in the Chase.
“Now, no matter what, I feel we can be proud of this year and all that we accomplished. But I feel we’ve got a little bit left that we can do as well to make it even sweeter.”
Nobody should be surprised if Gordon caps his stellar career on top. He is arguably the most dangerous threat of the eight drivers to win it all down the stretch given his history at the tracks.
But simply getting to this point is a borderline miracle for Gordon and his No. 24 AARP Member Advantages Chevrolet. He hasn’t been as dominant as Joey Logano, who has a series-leading six wins, or Kyle Busch, who has four wins despite missing the first 11 races.
Every Chase driver left, for that matter, has at least one win … except Gordon.
He has posted four top-five finishes and 17 top-10 finishes in 32 races. That’s not too shabby for some drivers, but Gordon is known for winning and championships.
To put it in perspective, Gordon had four wins and 12 top-fives at this time last year.
However, none of that matters under NASCAR’s new Chase format. Like most sports in the postseason, if Gordon gets hot at the right time, he can walk away a champion.
Don’t bet against Gordon to do it, either. He’s won at every track in the Eliminator Round — he has eight wins at Martinsville, one win at Texas and two at Phoenix. A win at any of those tracks would secure one of four spots in the season-ending championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where has also won once.
“The fact that we’ve made it to this round is something we’re proud of, something unexpected even by us a little bit,” Gordon said. “But the truth of the matter is that our team has really stepped up since the Chase started. I’ve said all along if we can make it to this round, we have an excellent opportunity with the three tracks in this round.
“Right now, I’m just focused on Martinsville. See what happens here and then we’ll go focus on Texas.”
Gordon has been a staple at Texas Motor Speedway since Day 1.
He joined two Texans, brothers Bobby and Terry Labonte, during the groundbreaking ceremony in 1995 and has taken part in every NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the track since 1997.
“The groundbreaking was a big deal for our sport. Everybody felt like Texas was a great state for NASCAR,” Gordon said. “To have a premier facility there was something we were all very proud of.”
But Gordon didn’t have success on the track early on. He finished 30th, 31st, 43rd and 25th in his first four races before notching a top-five run in 2001. In 2002, he was the runner-up and then had consecutive third-place runs in 2003 and ’04.
Whenever I would see Jeff, he’d always ask me if I had a Cowboy hat in his size. I’d always tell him, ‘I have one in Victory Lane.’
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage
It seemed as though Gordon might never win at the track, particularly after leading 173 laps in what became a fourth-place run in the spring of 2007. A year later in the 2008 spring race, Gordon finished last for the second time in his career at Texas — those two last-place finishes at Texas are the only last-place finishes in Gordon’s 793 career races.
But that didn’t faze him.
“Whenever I would see Jeff, he’d always ask me if I had a Cowboy hat in his size,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “I’d always tell him, ‘I have one in Victory Lane.’ ”
Gordon, in his 17th career race at Texas, finally got that coveted hat in the spring of 2009. He had a dominant day and, more important, snapped a career-long 47 race winless drought.
“It’s one thing to go to a track and struggle being competitive,” Gordon said. “That was never the case for us at Texas. We just never had a complete race kind of fall together for us. That’s what happened when we finally won there.”
The Victory Lane celebration that day remains one of Gossage’s favorites.
“He didn’t even have the motor shut off when he started hollering, ‘Eddie, bring me my hat! Bring me my hat!’ ” Gossage said. “He didn’t have a Cowboy hat for the longest time and he knew there was only one way to get it.”
Since that win, though, Gordon has become more known for his scuffles in Texas than anything else.
21Consecutive top-10s from 1998-99 for Jeff Gordon
In the fall of 2010, Gordon found himself in a bizarre wreck with Jeff Burton under caution. Burton accidentally ran into Gordon’s car and then pulled alongside him to apologize. Burton hit Gordon again, causing both to wreck, and the two tangled along the apron in Turn 4.
“He just snapped,” Gordon recalled. “He just completely snapped and lost it. It was shocking and uncalled for. I think my reaction was based on that.”
Another high-profile incident involving Gordon happened last November. Gordon was in position to win the race and a spot in the championship round, much like this season.
But Gordon saw his championship dreams essentially end when Brad Keselowski made a daring move late in the race and cut Gordon’s left rear tire. A heated Gordon attempted to talk with Keselowski about it, and then a brawl erupted between the two teams.
“What happened on pit road wasn’t necessary. That was just because he was over there trying to ignore me instead of having a one-on-one conversation,” Gordon said. “Then his team is sitting there trying to protect him and then it just got out of control.
“But what happened on the race track … you don’t forget things like that. It wasn’t that he did anything that was really bad; he was racing hard, I have no problem with that. But when he cuts your tire down, you’re not going to forget that.
“Then he wouldn’t talk to me. Even if he said, ‘Listen, I don’t think I did anything wrong. I did what I felt was right.’ That’s fine. But to stand there and ignore the situation? I’m sorry, but that’s not going to happen.”
Those scuffles served as easy marketing tools to promote future races at TMS, although Gordon laughed at the notion that he and Gossage had some sort of under-the-table deal.
“I’m still waiting for that check,” Gordon said, grinning. “Listen, one of the many things I love about Eddie … does he push things a little too far sometimes? Yes, but I love his passion to help draw fans in and create drama or capitalize on it.
“If I’m going to go out there and do something like what happened [in those two incidents], then I know that there are going to be repercussions of that. I know full well that I’ll end up on a billboard or a TV advertisement when I go back to Texas.”
92Career victories for Jeff Gordon, third all time
Texas fans have seen the passion and intensity that Gordon brings on race day firsthand, and time will tell just how his last race will be remembered.
Of course, Gordon would love to have another Victory Lane moment with Gossage. But he surely won’t shy away from another scuffle should those circumstances arise.
“That’s the thing I like about him and I think fans like about him,” Gossage said. “A lot of athletes toward the end of their careers go out quietly. Jeff is not. He’s still in position to win a championship this year, and he showed last year at Texas just how serious he is about it.
“He’s not just riding around out there. He wants to win.”
Jeff Gordon remains an icon, a guy who changed the sport for the better. Everybody has kind words about him, and it should be no surprise that even some of the younger drivers are still in awe of him.
Joey Logano, the 25-year-old who is the odds-on favorite to win the championship, seemed overjoyed when told that Gordon pegged his team as the one to beat for the championship.
“First of all, it’s pretty cool when Jeff Gordon says that,” Logano said. “That’s pretty neat.”
Gordon helped take NASCAR to heights that it hadn’t seen before. He might have been known as “Wonder Boy” in his early days, but he is now known for the relevance he brought to the sport.
Sure, there is the on-track success. He has four championships; he has 92 wins; he finished in the top 10 in 21 consecutive races (the final 20 races in 1998 and the first in 1999), the longest such streak in the past 25 years.
Jeff Gordon has changed our sport in so many ways. In the next decade or so, it’ll continue to be defined by Jeff as a legendary champion who helped our sport get to national recognition in the early 1990s.
Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch
More than that, though, is what he did away from the track. He hosted Saturday Night Live and served as a fill-in host on Live! with Regis and Kelly. That type of crossover appeal helped Gordon become a household name and NASCAR become a national sensation in the 1990s.
“All of what Jeff has done really changed how our sport’s perceived,” Gossage said.
Added fellow driver Kurt Busch: “Jeff Gordon has changed our sport in so many ways. In the next decade or so, it’ll continue to be defined by Jeff as a legendary champion who helped our sport get to national recognition in the early 1990s.”
Busch said the sport continues to benefit by Gordon staying in championship contention. Busch, himself gunning for a championship, understands what it would mean to the sport should Gordon go out on top.
“It kind of reminds you of the time when [Hall of Fame quarterback] John Elway won the Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos and then retired,” Busch said. “That’s what we’re experiencing right now with a four-time champion in Jeff Gordon.”
Denny Hamlin, who finished third in last year’s Chase, feels the same way. Even though Hamlin has been knocked out of contention, he sees a lot of similarities between his run late last season and Gordon’s this season.
Hamlin didn’t have the most spectacular year but got things going at the right time to put himself in contention for a title at the end. And he views Gordon as a legitimate threat to win it all.
“He’s heading into the wheelhouse of his race tracks,” Hamlin said. “He’s definitely one of the dangerous guys left in this Chase.”
Gordon believes it, too.
As he’s said, “I feel we’ve got a little bit left that we can do as well to make it even sweeter.”
AAA Texas 500
1 p.m. Nov. 8, KXAS/5
Jeff Gordon at Texas Motor Speedway
1 Win (2009 Samsung Mobile 500)
2 Poles (fall 2008 and 2009)
2 Fights (fall 2010 and 2014)
4 Consecutive top-five finishes (2001-04)
8 Front-row starts
9 Top-five finishes
13 Top-10 finishes
29 Consecutive starts
43 Worst finish (1998 and spring 2008)
173 Most laps led in race (spring 2007)
691 Career laps led
8,664 Career laps completed
12,996 Miles completed
$425,000 Amount donated by Gordon to Speedway Children’s Charities – Texas
$5.4 million Race earnings
Source: Texas Motor Speedway
TMS honoring Jeff Gordon
Texas Motor Speedway is doing several things to pump up Gordon’s final race.
▪ The speedway created a special logo, “Jeff Gordon’s Final Rodeo,” which will be prominently displayed above every grandstand entrance gate at the track.
▪ A 24-member sky diving team will honor Gordon during pre-race ceremonies for the AAA Texas 500, each carrying 24 flags. The 24th sky diver will have a giant 20-by-40 flag.
▪ With 24 days to race day, TMS began illuminating a giant “24” on the back of ‘Big Hoss TV’ facing Interstate 35W and will do so until race day.
▪ The speedway has produced a limited-edition “Jeff Gordon Final Rodeo” coin that is available for $15. Only 795 were made, coinciding with Gordon’s NASCAR-record consecutive starts streak being extended to that number at Texas. Additionally, they will be selling an exotic, bacon-themed ice cream sundae called the “Final Rocky Road-eo” as a nod to Gordon’s affection for Rocky Road ice cream.