23 full-time seasons. 92 wins. 320 top fives and 454 top 10s. Sounds unreal, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.
Jeff Gordon, the face of NASCAR since winning the Coca-Cola 600, is “retiring,” but he’s just moving out of the driver’s seat. After becoming one of the best drivers in NASCAR history, Gordon, who will turn 44 in August, has announced that the 2015 season will be his final full-time year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
“This is certainly something that I've been thinking about for years,” Gordon said in a teleconference on Thursday afternoon. “Rick and I have talked about for a number of years. You're always trying to, when you get to this point in your career and you've done as much as we've done as a team, trying to figure out when that right time to step away is. I always said I wanted to step away on my own terms if possible, and I want to be competitive out there, and I hoped that I could do that all the way through my final year.”
Gordon’s numbers speak for itself. There isn’t a need to go into hefty detail about his career on the track. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports since the final race of the 1992 season at Atlanta, which was Richard Petty’s last event, has shown the importance of the No. 24 team. From working with Ray Evernham and Robbie Loomis, to Steve Letarte and Alan Gustafson, Gordon has found success no matter who was on the top of the pit box.
But where Gordon is different from everyone else is his philanthropy. Running the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation since 1999, he has helped raise approximately $15 million, which goes towards pediatric cancer research, the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital and plenty of other resources to help children and families.
“You've got the wins, the championships, the philanthropy, just role model and spokesman for the sport,” said team owner, Rick Hendrick. “I've always said he's got the whole package, and he will leave his mark beyond the driving years too. He's a special guy, and I think the fans are going to appreciate everything he's done on and off the track.”
The reaction around the sport to Gordon’s announcement, which surprised no one considering his ailing back issues and two children that are getting older, has been spectacular. For those who don’t know non-NASCAR fans, go up to any random person and ask to name one NASCAR driver that they know. Surprise, surprise. Chances are, the answer that you are going to get is: Jeff Gordon.
Although Gordon believes Homestead will be the final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race he will ever enter, he has not ruled out running events in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Camping World Truck Series, sports cars or even off-road racing. He will still have a presence at the track in 2016, and will likely be heavily involved in the future of Hendrick Motorsports.
NASCAR without Gordon seems odd. He has helped create the multi-million dollar sponsorship industry that we see today. Until Dupont was sold, he had the longest running driver-team-sponsorship relationship since Richard Petty and STP. Without Gordon, Jimmie Johnson probably wouldn’t be at HMS, and winning six championships over the past decade.
I didn’t grow up as a fan of Gordon. Until I became a reporter, I really didn’t have respect for him. When you realize how much of an impact one person can have on a whole sport, it makes you earn understand just how important living life at its fullest can be. Just like the Hall of Famer that he is, Gordon has shown he is a first class athlete.
Arguably more important to NASCAR than Derek Jeter was and still is to the Yankees, Gordon’s legacy will never end. The face of the sport is Gordon, and it probably will be for a very long time. Continuing Petty’s legacy, Gordon now hands down the throne to the future of HMS, Chase Elliott, who is expected to take over his seat in 2016 and beyond.
Chase Elliott, 18, is trying to do something rather rare. Elliott, the son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Bill Elliott, currently holds the drivers points lead in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. In doing so, Elliott has become the youngest driver to lead the points in NASCAR's second tier division.
After not being sure whether or not he would have a job come 2014, Elliott has made the most of his opportunity with JR Motorsports. Through the first seven races, the Georgia native has won back-to-back events. However, he is still in high school. Elliott is set to graduate from his private Christian high school in approximately a month, yet his priorities are straighter than most high school seniors.
Elliott spoke with Speedway Digest for an exclusive interview on Tuesday afternoon about his education, his future in racing with JR Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports, his early success this season and more.
Q: How do you manage school with your racing career? Has it been overwhelming for you?
A: No, it hasn’t been really overwhelming. There have been years in the past where we have done just as much racing as we are doing right now. I was still in school then too. I have been fortunate to go to a school where they work with me on this, and they allow me to go race. It has been that way for a few years now. At this point in school, there’s not a ton going on right now, so it has been a pretty good balance I feel like.
Q: What was the reaction from everyone that you know when you walked into school following your back-to-back wins over the past few weeks?
A: Honestly, it really hasn’t been any different. I don’t want it to be. I feel like I’m going to school like everybody else is, and there is nothing needed to lose sight of that.
Q: How much time have you been able to spend at the shop since you are always in school?
A: Zero percent as of right now. The (JR Motorsports) shop is located in North Carolina, and I’m located in Georgia, so we’re in two different places right now.
Q: A lot of people have said that once you graduate, you’re going to be even more focused on racing. How much of your concentration on your driving has been lost due to going to school?
A: I don’t know it has been lost honestly. I think going to school is a benefit for me. Hopefully, after school it will improve, so I will be able to put some more focus to racing. But I don’t feel like it has been a hindrance by any means. I think it has been a good balance to this point, and this is a point and time in my life which I don’t want to rush through it. It is a time you don’t get back, and I want to enjoy it while I am still here.
Q: There have been a few other drivers that attempt to race and go to college. Is that something you plan on doing on a part-time basis while having a primary focus on racing?
A: I’m honestly not sure right now. At this point, my focus right now is to finish up (high) school during the week and focusing on racing on the weekends. I’m not sure what the future holds. We will have to see.
Q: With such a hectic schedule, how do you find time to relax?
Yeah, it has been okay. I feel like obviously the weekends are busy, but I have been able to enjoy a little bit of time away from everything which I think in a way is good and bad at the same time. It kind of allows me to be away and enjoy school while it is still here, finish up school strong and try to enjoy my time. Like I said – time is something you don’t get back, and it is what you need to make the most of.
Q: What did you learn in your nine Truck Series starts last year that you have taken over to the Nationwide Series?
A: I think just laps. That was probably the biggest thing I can take from that - going to race tracks that we are going to be visiting here in the next few weeks that we ran last year in the Truck Series. It’s a completely different world from the Truck Series side. But hopefully, we can take a little bit of what we did last year and hopefully go forward to be competitive in Nationwide Series races and be a lot better there.
Q: You’ve been having a lot of early success at tracks which you have never raced at previously. What do you do to prepare to go to all of the different tracks since you can’t test?
A: We actually can’t test at all. Unless it is a test that is NASCAR sanctioned, we are not allowed to go with the team. The best that you can do is watch videos, and just learn from the guys around you. I have some great teammates in Regan (Smith), Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and Kevin (Harvick) as well. Those guys are obviously very, very knowledgeable, and they have shared that with me up to this point. I hope they continue to strive with the great support the guys at the shop give. It is not something I want to pass up.
Q: What has been the biggest key to your early success this year?
A: I think the biggest thing is just having a good group of guys, being paired with the right people and being at a great organization like JR Motorsports. Honestly, I feel like NAPA Auto Parts has given us a great opportunity to do things like they need to be done, and being able to do that at a place like JRM has been as good as it gets. Some folks really stepped up this off-season I felt like, and just from what I see coming from the outside looking in last year, those guys got really close. I think during the off-season, they made a lot of changes – hopefully for the better. It is still really early in the year, so we definitely don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and be happy with what we have done because there is still a lot of racing left. There is definitely a plus side that you can take from these first seven weeks, but at the same time – there is still racing left. So much improving needs to get done for us to be exactly where we need to be, and compete at the level I feel like we need to be at each weekend. We just need to keep trying to get better, and hopefully we can improve a little bit this weekend at Richmond.
Q: Being the youngest driver to lead the standings in the Nationwide Series, do you feel like you can win the championship as a rookie this year?
A: Leading the points right now is like having the best batting average on opening day, so it is kind of irrelevant at this point in the season. We just need to make sure we keep taking it a week at a time, and not get caught up in that. It is too early for that, and we will focus on it when it comes time (to do so).
Q: A lot of people have discussed drivers rushing up to the Cup Series at a young age. What do you believe you need to prove in order to show that you can race for victories in Cup?
A: Like I said, I’m not in a rush to do it. I feel like I don’t need to be in a rush. I’m 18 and there is no need to do that right now. I have an opportunity right now, and if I can make the most of it now, I feel like the future will figure itself out.
Q: When do you believe you will be ready to race in the Sprint Cup Series?
A: I really don’t know. Like I said, it’s not anything I am concerned with. It is not my call. I am going to go keep doing what we are doing right now and focus on the situation that we are in, and race in the Nationwide Series. It is not something to get caught up in. We just have to focus on what we have going on right now. There is no need to think about it.
Q: How do you feel all of this attention from the media and fans has affected your personality?
A: I just want to be the same person I have always been. I want to focus on winning races. That is what I always tried to do, and I feel like you have to always do that.
Q: What is the biggest difference between working with Greg Ives compared to Lance McGrew?
A: It is tough to say. Both of those guys are great in different areas. I think both guys are really smart. I felt like Lance did a good job, and we had fun working with him, winning some races. I enjoyed that. It was great to work with him, and Lance is still a good friend of mine. I still talk to him a pretty good bit. Working with Greg has been great too. I’m still getting to know Greg. I know him for a few months now, so I feel like we have a lot of growing to do. I feel like we can still improve our communication though and make our relationship better.
Q: Growing up, did you ever imagine that you would be so successful so rapidly?
A: At the end of the season, I was going into a group that won races before, and those guys are capable of doing it. I figured it was up to me to get it done and give feedback to make the cars go faster. I need to try to give good information after the races so we can get better for next week. I feel like if I do my job for those guys, we can get better and win some more races
Q: What do you need to improve upon as a driver?
A: Anything and everything, man. There is always room for improvement in all aspects, and I feel like we need to try to do that each weekend. Hopefully, we can do that this weekend at Richmond.
Q: Do you believe that you are a better racer at the moment over your competitors which are in your age group?
A: No, I don’t think so. We’re all setting out to do the same thing, and their goal is to win the race. Obviously, you hope you do better than the next guy, but I think everybody is on such an even playing field right now with the way racing is, the setups on these cars and the tech process. These cars are very equal. At this point, I feel like everyone is on a leveled playing field, and I think all of those guys are capable of getting the job done at any given point honestly if things go their way. You hope things go your way each weekend, but I feel like all of those guys can definitely get the job done.
Q: What is it like to not only race against some of the Sprint Cup Series stars and work with them, but beating them in a division which they have dominated?
A: I think it has been good to have those guys around for sure. There is a lot that can be learned from them. I hope to continue to race with those guys on a week-to-week basis. I feel like we are capable of doing it. We just need to make sure we keep improving and taking advantage of off-weeks like this past one. It’s great to race those guys, and I hope we can race with them more throughout the year.
Q: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seen with you in victory lane during your two wins. What has he done for you that has helped you become a better racer?
A: He has been a great mentor honestly. Dale has a lot of experience and he is obviously a successful car owner as well as a driver. He has been around. He knows how to make things work. He is one of the best guys this year on the Cup Series side. I feel like having him on our side has been great. Just having his personality is good to have, and I am just glad to have him around.
Q: What advantage do you feel like JR Motorsports has given you that has helped you be such a success early in the season?
A: It is about having good people around you, and I feel like having a good atmosphere is big. They have that over there, and we just can’t be content with where we are. Our competition is always trying to get better, and we just need to make sure we are doing the same.
Q: During the off-season, you originally didn’t have a ride. Then, you signed on with JR Motorsports thanks to NAPA. Discuss how you guys were able to sign NAPA to a contract.
A: It was a little bit of a long process. We went to meet with those guys, and when we came back, they said they wanted to support our program. From there, we moved forward. That is how it really all came about.
Q: How long is your contract for?
A: As of right now, we are planning on running this year and next year in the Nationwide Series. Beyond that, we will see what happens.
Q: Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
A: There are a lot of guys. Obviously, my dad has had a major role in it. He has been able to go to a lot of races, and we’ve been able to do a lot of races with him over the past five years, especially in late models. There are a lot of guys other than him that have helped a lot too. We have been fortunate to have some good folks on our side, and we are definitely fortunate to have those guys behind us. It has been fun to go racing with them.
Q: What has it been like to work with Rick Hendrick? How much of an influence has he had on your season so far in helping develop your skills?
A: Well, had it not been for him, we wouldn’t be racing this season. All of these opportunities and everything that I have done this past year has been due to him. I really owe it all to him, and had it not been for him, I wouldn’t be racing this weekend at Richmond. It is all thanks to him and what he has done for us. It means a lot to me.
Q: Does it ever cross your mind that you could possibly be Jeff Gordon’s replacement going down the road?
A: No, not really. I don’t think it is anything to be caught up in. Jeff can still get the job done on any given weekend, and he is a guy that is still in his prime. He is still in his prime in my book. Like I said before about going Cup Series racing – it is not anything to worry about, or even think about at this point.
Q: As a kid, what is one memory from your dad’s career that has stuck with you as motivation to replicate what he did?
A: I remember a little bit of the Brickyard win. That was cool to be a part of and see during the Evernham days. Those guys went out and had a lot of success in a short amount of time, so I think that’s what I look back on. It is definitely cool to have that experience in the house.
Q: What is the hardest part about jumping from division to division as you climbed through the ranks?
Well, it kind of depends on which stuff it is. All of them are tough steps. As you move up and do different things, it definitely doesn’t get any easier. You kind of have to keep that in mind, but you can’t lose track of what your goal is. I don’t care what you are racing – your goal is always pretty similar. I know I have the right mind set, and I’m not sure what the next step will be or where it is going to lead. But for me, I just need to try to focus on what we have going on and do a better job each weekend and try to get a little better.
Q: Going through all those divisions, do you feel like you rushed through the ranks since you didn’t stay in a division for more than a year?
A: I don’t think so. I think that is always a good thing to do if you can. We have had some great sponsors to do it and to run different cars. I think there are many different things you can gain on any given week, and we have been able to do that for the last several years.
Q: Last year when you won in Canada, you had a scuffle with Ty Dillon. Are you worried that people judge you based on that incident and say you are too aggressive?
A: I’m really not sure. I feel like that was definitely a race where we had a fast truck that day. It was good to get the win, but at the same time – I still have a lot of maturing to do and definitely that day. You definitely have to be mindful of the decisions you make. I felt like at the time, trying to go for the win was probably a move a lot of guys would have made, but I should’ve been a little smarter about it.