When Jeff Gordon announced his retirement plans prior to the 2015 season, he knew his final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway would be an emotional day. However, Gordon was ultimately forced to focus on trying to win his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship instead of making a spectacle of his final event.
While Gordon came up short to Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the championship fight, the day passed without any public displays of deep emotion.
Yet when Gordon was presented the Bill France Award of Excellence during Friday night’s Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony at the Wynn Las Vegas, the veteran driver who changed the sport couldn’t hold back any longer.
Introduced by actor Tom Cruise, Gordon let his emotions show in a big way speaking just moments after Cruise described the four-time champion as "transcendent."
"Daytona International Speedway, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Rwanda, the Waldorf Astoria, the White House and now the Wynn," said Cruise. "He felt as comfortable discussing a championship with George Bush as breaking down Homestead with Kyle Busch, at ease discussing SNL skits with Jimmy Fallon as racing door to door with Jimmie Johnson. And with that he brought joy to millions, used his immense and deserved popularity for the betterment of the world both at home and abroad, transcendence.
"Few reach it, he did. And although many of us want to say we’ll miss you, what we really mean is we thank you."
Once on stage and after being presented the Bill France Award of Excellence by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, Gordon took time to honor Busch for his first Sprint Cup title, before discussing his historic time behind the wheel.
"Motorsports has provided me lifelong memories and stories that I get to reminisce and talk about for years and years to come. NASCAR in particular has changed my life in ways that I could never really even describe," Gordon said. "It’s still really just a blur to me. It seems like it was just, you know, not that long ago that I was traveling from Indiana to North Carolina to see what NASCAR was even all about, and now here I am 25 years later stepping away from one of the most prestigious series in all of motorsports and a fulfilling career.
"That can truly only be described as remarkable, and for that I am forever, forever thankful."
Gordon then took time to thank his longtime car owner and friend Rick Hendrick for selecting him as the team’s driver back in 1992.
"I’m so proud to say I drove for one car owner, the best car owner, my entire Sprint Cup career," Gordon said, choking back tears. "I want to thank everyone on the 24 team and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports who puts their blood, sweat and tears making the best teams in race cars every single day, and of course the team that I went to battle with this year and the last several years."
Throughout his final awards ceremony speech, Gordon thanked his sponsors, Chevrolet, the fans and his fellow competitors. Gordon, who is joining the FOX NASCAR broadcast booth next season, also laid out some of the things he would miss the most about driving — and some things he’s glad to be leaving behind.
"I’m going to miss having that opportunity to win a Daytona 500, maybe another Brickyard 400 or what it was like in that last Martinsville win. I mean, how can you even come close to what that’s like?" Gordon said. "I’m going to miss the excitement in my team after a win and all of the hard work that they put into it knowing that it paid off or seeing (wife) Ingrid and the kids walk into Victory Lane and the look on their faces. Hearing those screaming fans and cheers of thousands of fans pulling for you, nothing like that.
"Sure, I’m going to miss those things, but there are a few things I’m not going to miss so much, like practicing in the middle of the day when it’s 90 degrees knowing that it’s a night race. You’re going to be racing 70 degree conditions. What’s that all about? Standing next to a fan — it must have been you in a urinal who’s so excited to meet you that they don’t want to take the time to watch their hands before they shake your hand. Oh, yeah. That one’s happened many times. More than you can ever imagine. Leading the race, just seeing the white flag, flagman’s got that thing in his hand, he’s getting ready to wave it, and inches before you’re there, caution comes out. No, not going to miss that one. Being the last car on old tires."
And the winner of 93 top series NASCAR races also won’t miss those pesky late-race yellow flags that are so unpopular among his peers.
"Last but not least, debris cautions," Gordon said with a laugh. "Enough said. Now irony to all of this is that when I’m in the booth commentating next year for FOX, those are the things I’m going look forward to the most. Have fun.
"Thank you guys. It’s been so special. Thank you, thank you."