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The Perfect Ending Gutted By An Imperfect Sport

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 23 2015
Jeff Gordon drove off into retirement on Sunday but not the way he nor many others who love racing would have liked to seen. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

Jeff Gordon drove off into retirement on Sunday but not the way he nor many others who love racing would have liked to seen. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

A race day that dawned Sunday morning with coffee and tears shared with his mom, Carol, ended after sunset with the gift of his helmet to car-owner Rick Hendrick.

In between, on the last day of his brilliant NASCAR career, Jeff Gordon bump-fisted countless bugopinionfans, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with motorsports superstars Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton during an impromptu photo-shoot and was moved emotionally by the respectful words and actions of his Sprint Cup Series peers. You bet he was.

Gordon’s bid for a magical fifth Cup championship in his final race wasn’t in the script Sunday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Kyle Busch completed a remarkable season-long comeback to win the Ford EcoBoost 400 and clinch his first driver’s title for Joe Gibbs Racing. And while the competitor in Gordon begged for more than a sixth-place finish and third in the overall point standings, the gentleman we have come to appreciate as Sir Jeff was content to know that he had flirted with the perfect ending.

Well, we all know nothing would have been quite better than that (fifth championship) and the win,” Gordon said during his final press conference as a driver in the HMS infield media center. “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

Fans expressed their feelings about Jeff Gordon's final race with magic markers. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Fans expressed their feelings about Jeff Gordon’s final race with magic markers. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)

times better than the rest, but it doesn’t mean that they’re ever perfect.

“I think had I won this race and this championship it would have been perfect, and I don’t think I could have accepted that. I wouldn’t have known how to.”

Actually, Gordon would have lived that moment with the trademark grace _ the unwavering class _ that has carried him through a 23-year Cup career punctuated by four championships (1995, 1997-98 and 2001) in nine years; 93 victories, third all-time and a record 797 consecutive starts.

All of those Hall of Fame stats were compiled in cars fielded by Hendrick Motorsports, as much a part of Jeff’s family as wife Ingrid, daughter Ella and son Leo.  It was for that reason that Gordon handed-off his last helmet to Hendrick moments after exiting his No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet SS for the final time.

“It felt so good to see Rick Hendrick,” Gordon said. “I wanted to give him that race helmet. I designed that helmet with the intent of giving it to him. He’s so special to me, more than just a car-owner/driver relationship, and I was so happy to have that moment getting out of the car with him.”

It was Hendrick, of course, who gave Gordon his first Cup start in the 1992 season-ender at

F1 world champions Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton were among the Jeff Gordon fans who watched the four-time Cup champion's last race on Sunday. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

F1 world champions Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton were among the Jeff Gordon fans who watched the four-time Cup champion’s last race on Sunday. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Atlanta Motor Speedway on the day seven-time champion Richard Petty rode into retirement. “Yeah, it’s real now. I think that’s what it is,” Mr. H said.  “Until right now when he got out of the car and gave me his helmet and said he wanted me to have it…that is real. And until right now, it wasn’t over. I’m very thankful that he has been a part of our company and a part of our racing deal and I’m just glad I saw him and got him in the car and didn’t have to race against him.”

Gordon acknowledged he and crew chief Alan Gustafson struggled with the No. 24’s handling once the sun started to set over the swamps of South Florida, with Jeff mired in 11th as the final laps clicked-off around the 1.5-mile oval. But thanks to one last and very timely NASCAR caution for “debris,” the leaders completed another round of pressurized pit stops to set up a restart with less than 10 laps to go.

Race-leader Brad Keselowski chose to start his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion from the inside, with Busch and his No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota Camry on the outside. Busch barged into the lead and drove away from Harvick’s No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevy SS, while Gordon darted from 10th to sixth.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen on that final restart,” said Gordon, who qualified for NASCAR’s “Final Four” with a victory at Martinsville Speedway in Round 7 of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. “To me, you can’t ever give up. That’s the way I work. I get frustrated and I get a little snappy in there because of that frustration, the adrenaline in the heat of the moment.

“But luckily I’ve had people working with me that understand what goes through my mind in there and just …and Alan was incredibly, incredibly amazing this whole weekend, this whole year, even though we had our moments. The way that he’s handled this team. I think those guys are really destined to do some great, great things in the future (with Chase Elliott), and I’m excited for them.

“Today, yeah, we kind of lost the handle…I just really had a tough time getting the balance,

The night time was not the right time for Jeff Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The night time was not the right time for Jeff Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

getting a hold of the track. I was tight getting in and every time we tried freeing-it-up I started getting real loose off. My car would be good for two laps and then it would really go kind of haywire, and cars would start sort of attacking me, and if I could run about three, four, five more laps then I’d actually start pulling away again.

“That’s frustrating and it was a struggle, but we fought through it, finished sixth and I’m happy the way it ended. I am. I was happy to have a restart where I made spots up on the restart. That’s something I can be proud of as well as all the other things I’m proud of.”

Gordon added that nothing could have topped the way his day started, with unexpected visits from his mom and stepdad, John Bickford. “I woke up…I was planning on sleeping-in and I was too excited, so I woke up a little earlier,” Gordon said. “Pulled up the shades on my bus and my mom just happened to be walking by. So that just made my day start so amazing, to be able to sit down with her on that day, first thing in the morning, and all the emotions and everything were just able to come out, and then we just had a great conversation.

“You know, she was not prepared for what was about to happen, I promise you. She walked in and we started hugging and talking, and I just started thanking her over and over and over again for all that they did for me. To experience this weekend alone, because she wasn’t at the track, my stepdad was, and he’d go back to the hotel and tell her some of the things that were happening or they were reading some of the articles that you very generous and sweet (media) people were writing because that makes parents very, very proud of their child.

It’s boo-hooing as loud as a person can boo-hoo. She was holding back. She got emotional but she was keeping herself in-check. I think she was wanting me to not lose control, so she was trying to be the stronger person, but I didn’t care. I was like, ‘I want to get it out right now before I walk out of this bus.’ So there was tears pouring down my face. I was like, ‘Yes, perfect, with my mom, before the race day started, I can recover from this. I think I can get through the day now.’

“And then my stepdad came in and then a little bit later Ingrid and the kids showed up. It was just perfect. Just missed a little bit on the race. I mean, overall I’m still just extremely proud and excited, not only the way that we ran this weekend and this year, but just my whole career.”

Gordon, who announced his decision to retire in January, will continue his involvement with

Jeff Gordon's Sprint Cup driving career is over. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

Jeff Gordon’s Sprint Cup driving career is over. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

NASCAR next season as a FOX Sports TV analyst. He exited Sunday as a competitive 44-year-old in a sport increasingly being re-populated by drivers half his age _ see Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne and Ryan Blaney _ each fuzzy-faced enough to have been card-carrying members of The Jeff Gordon Fan Club.

“You know, I made the decision (to retire) for a lot of reasons,” Gordon said. “The timing of it, I knew that I still have a team and the ability to be competitive out there. A lot of things added up to make it the right time, and I was just proud of what I did last year. To me last year was a great year that I could have walked away from the sport, and it was like, ‘Yeah, I feel like I went out pretty much on top.’

So this year was disappointing in so many ways for a good portion of the season because I thought we had the ability to run like we did last year. I didn’t think that our competition would catch up as much as they did, as well as the rule changes with the power and the aero would affect us as much as it did.

“That kind of caught me off-guard, and I can’t say that I was enjoying the competition halfway through the season. But then I saw a change and I saw it start to turn a corner and I started to think, ‘OK, you know, there’s still a chance that we can end this season by doing it competitively the way that I want to do it.’ That doesn’t mean that I had to win a championship or even compete for a championship. But I wanted to win a race at least, and I wanted to show that I still have what it takes.

“I think the Chase truly showed that. I’m extremely proud of my driving and our team effort over these last 10 races. I think that’s something that is going to stick with me for a very long time, and how I made the announcement and how we approached the season and how we finished it.”

Hendrick, whose organization remains super-strong with six-time Cup champion and Gordon protégé Jimmie Johnson as point-man, was asked to put his spin on the end of the Sir Jeff Era.

“It’s like right now, the racing doesn’t matter as much as the relationship does,” Hendrick said. “I would have loved to see him go out a champion, but he went out in the top four and not many guys do that. People are not going to really understand what Jeff Gordon meant to this sport until a few years down the road when you really look back and you think about all the doors he opened and TV and sponsors and (how he) brought this sport to a whole new level. What he did for me and my family and our company, it’s obvious _ 93 wins and four championships _ and he’s just a special person.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 23 2015
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  • Robert says:

    It was great to watch you through your whole racing seasons you wil be missed congrats one of your biggest fans robert