When a typical person thinks of NASCAR, they think: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Those might be the only names they know, but the sport’s history has passed in phases and on Sunday in Homestead, the latter of those three are coming to an end.
It has been over 40 years since there haven’t been either “The King,” “The Intimidator” or “The Rainbow Warrior” in a Sprint Cup Series race. However, that will all change on Feb. 21, 2016 in the 56th running of the Daytona 500 when Chase Elliott straps aboard the No. 24 car, replacing Gordon.
Gordon has been at the top of the NASCAR rankings for the past 23 years. In his Hall of Fame career, the California native has accumulated 93 wins, 325 top-fives and 474 top 10s.
That’s pretty damn impressive for a dirt track racer that made a sudden jump to hefty stock cars in the early 1990s.
For the better half of his farewell tour Gordon struggled. Leading up to the Chase, the No. 24 team had 13 top-10 finishes, but just three top fives, which at the time was a career-low.
Since the Chase begun, the Hendrick Motorsports team has picked up the pace and earned two top-five finishes in the first nine races and are on a current streak of six consecutive top 10s. Going into Homestead, Gordon could potentially pick up another top five, increasing his season total to six, which will still be a career-low, dating back to his first two full-time seasons when he picked up seven.
Do the numbers really matter for Gordon?
If it were any other driver, the numbers could matter. Critics would say Gordon has lost his touch because of an aerodynamic package that threw him a knuckleball in 2015.
Gordon is a four-time Cup champion, but has not won a title since 2001. Since the inception of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004, he has come close to winning the championship, but he has never sealed the deal. In the end, he will be remembered for how influential he was to the motorsports world. He will not be fully away from the sport as he will move from behind the wheel to behind a microphone as he works with FOX Sports to cover the Cup series in 2016.
According to Bleacher Report, Gordon has appeared on the morning talk show Live 27 times, including 11 times as a co-host. He has made other cameo appearances on Saturday Night Live and made his broadcasting debut at the Texas Motor Speedway in April of this year.
Self-admittedly, Gordon didn’t believe that his team would get out of Round 2 of the Chase this year. After having a solid Contender Round, he advanced at Talladega to move into the Eliminator Round and the first track of the round was at one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville, where he had an average finish of seventh prior to his final event at the “paper clip.”
He won at Martinsville, stamping his name into the championship race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22, where he could potentially win his magnificent fifth championship with Rick Hendrick.
In the last race of Gordon’s career, he can go out and win a championship. There is literally no better story than for a driver who has meant so much to a sport to have the ability to walk off with the championship. The same Chase format that hurt Gordon in 2014 – and several times before that – has propelled him with an opportunity of a lifetime just one short year later.
Throughout his career, Gordon has always been among the top-tier drivers in NASCAR. If Martinsville is his last win, it would mean that he won three races prior to hanging up the steering wheel. That’s the latest in the career of any Hall of Famer, including Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson.
Thus brings up the question: Should Gordon race another race after Homestead?
According to Gordon, he has given it some thought, stating earlier in the season that he could potentially race a few short track events. But with the recent resurgence of the No. 24 team and the way that he raced himself into the championship race, he should not race again after Sunday’s event.
Gordon has nothing to lose and everything to gain. His legacy is cemented as one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers of all time. There is no sense to race another event after Homestead. If he wins, he goes out on top. If he loses, he still goes out on top.
Statistically, 2015 has been one of Gordon’s worst seasons of his career. The numbers will go away if he can with the championship on Sunday. All people will remember is how Gordon walked off with the championship. Even if Gordon comes up short, he was in it until the last race of his career.
It’s not often that the sports world sees what they are currently seeing – one of the prominent figures of their particular sport going out at the highest peak. Take a look at Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning, each of who are struggling mightily as the career comes to a close.
There is no doubt that Gordon will be the sentimental favorite at Homestead as he has been at every track this season. At every circuit in the 36-race schedule, he has been honored with a plethora of gifts. The tracks – and even the media – have expressed enthusiasm as Gordon’s career comes to a close.
Since the Chase began in Chicago, Gordon has a 7.7 average finish, the best of any of the championship eligible drivers. More than likely, he will need to win at Homestead to capture his fifth Cup title as he has to beat out the likes of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Gordon has finished higher than those three drivers in the same race just five times this season, but twice in the Chase at Talladega and Martinsville.
Gordon has all the confidence in the world with his recent success, and will need to maintain that swagger if he is going to finish ahead of the other competitors.
No matter what the end result is, Gordon will head into retirement at the top of NASCAR’s Mount Everest and won’t have any regrets in his career.