As his car rolled onto pit road at Homestead, reality began to set in. It was the end of a legacy in the only car he’s ever known, with the only car owner he’s ever raced for.
He embraced his owner, handing over the helmet that for 267 laps adorned his head that had his crew chief and spotter talking to him, giving him notes for how the race was going. His children walked up, embracing their father as they too saw his career come to a conclusion. His adoring wife held his cheeks, planting a kiss on the one she loved, knowing that this was the finale of all he’s known.
The only thing missing was a championship, but the trophy didn’t define who he was.
Jeff Gordon finished his NASCAR career behind the wheel of the No. 24 on Sunday. There’s no more firesuits to put on hours before the green flag, nor engines to fire, nor media members to address once the checkered flag waves.
It was over.
As he walked through the garage one final time, he didn’t walk away knowing he didn’t win a championship. He’s walking away on his terms, his way, and without outside factors. He is a champion, he did so on four occasions. He’s a race winner, 93 times over. In his 23-year career, there was not one race that he was sidelined due to injury. Even the births of Leo and Ella came after a race was done, during the week leading up to the next one.
The only way Gordon would miss a race is when he decided that it was time to let someone new take over, and even then he went out as a winner.
Not once during the year did those he was racing against lay over for him. They ran him hard each week, making him earn the position with every lap, every pass, and every pit stop. It wasn’t a retirement season, but instead was a competitive season where his fellow drivers made him work for it, to show he could still compete with the new generation of drivers.
Gordon saw the changing of the guard in the sport many times over, beginning with him as the torch to the next generation went from Dale Earnhardt to him. Sure, the “Wonder Boy” nickname stuck with him for a while, but even the sport’s icon at the time could see what Gordon could be.
It’s why Earnhardt chose to do business with him, along with Rusty Wallace, to create the Chase Authentics brand.
Gordon saw the torch being passed from him to Jimmie Johnson the moment he first took the wheel of the No. 48, and since then that team has become the new standard-bearer in the industry.
Now, Gordon is passing the torch to the newest generation of drivers, handing over the steering wheel to a second-generation driver, one who’s father originated the crop of young drivers to begin their careers in the early 1980’s. It’s now Chase Elliott’s turn to make his own legacy in the No. 24, knowing that for many that car will represent a driver who’s new home is in the broadcast booth.
But Gordon isn’t walking away as one who came up short in his championship quest. The journey to get there is what made it magical.
Was it the easiest path, absolutely not. Many didn’t think he would make it to where he would even compete in the final race for a championship. Yet at Martinsville, it felt like Gordon found the Fountain of Youth. It was dark, possibly darker than what could be considered safe to race in. But it was the track that many knew was his best opportunity. There were no jeers for him when he stopped to collect the checkered flag; everyone wanted to be a part of that moment, that experience. Fans chanted his name, and his fist pumps went right along with it.
It was as if it was Charlotte back in 1994, as the emotion came pouring out.
It was the 1990’s all over again, back when he was winning 10 races in a season, clinching a championship either by a small margin or long before the season concluded. He found what he needed to make it to the title race.
Whatever was to happen on Sunday, it didn’t change who he was, or what he represents.
He represents a generation of drivers that would rather swim with fishes instead of reel them in on a line and hook. It’s someone who would rather fly a plane to visit a winery instead of going up the road to the local pub for a beer. It’s someone who changed the face of what NASCAR was to be, instead of making it continue to be a grassroots sport that began with moonshine runners.
The sport has forever changed because of Gordon, all for the better.
He was the new face of dominance, the new standard for a driver, and the new representative for the sport. For 23 years, he’s seen changes in the point system, the car designs, technology and saw the advent of social media for the sport. He’s seen his crew change over the years, including some that started with him and eventually became crew chiefs for other teams, including some that stayed with the organization.
Now, it has come to an end. There’s sadness, for sure, among media and fans alike. Fellow drivers grew up idolizing him, now they got to race alongside him.
When the last autograph, the last interview, and the last media obligation was met on Sunday, it set in. The firesuit, gloves, shoes and helmet were put away for the final time. The season had come to an end, as well as a career worthy of a Hall of Fame induction.
Gordon got what Earnhardt never did, a proper send-off from the sport he gave everything to. Gordon gave back so much to it because it was what he knew, what he loved, and what he did best.
How can one not call him a champion. No trophy is needed to earn that representation.