Jeff Gordon said a year ago that if he won a fifth NASCAR championship in 2014, he’d call it quits on his illustrious career.
He fell just short of another title, but acknowledged Thursday he never would have done it anyway.
Instead, this year, his 23rd in NASCAR’s elite Cup series, will be his last. He made the decision midway through last year, when he was invigorated by his on-track performance and a very strong title shot.
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When Gordon finally steps out of the famed and sometimes feared No. 24 Chevrolet, he’ll close the books on one of the most successful careers in auto racing history. He goes into this final season with 92 wins, trailing only Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
He won all the big races, collected four championships in just seven years and had 58 victories before his 30th birthday. The 43-year-old driver also has three Daytona 500 victories and a record five Brickyard 400 wins.
But there are many who believe Gordon would have broken the record of seven championships shared by Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt if not for NASCAR’s adoption of the Chase for the championship format in 2004. He went down to the wire in the title race that year, lost an epic battle to teammate Jimmie Johnson in 2007 and was denied a shot at the winner-take-all finale last season by just one point.
Coming so close but falling short a year ago stung tremendously, and Gordon said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press that it spilled over to pit road at Texas, where he and his crew brawled with Brad Keselowski and his crew.
”I knew it was going to be my final year. And to be that close, and to have one of the best years of your career and a championship right there within reach – it was tough to handle,” he said. ”I think that contributed to my reaction to what happened at Texas. How upset I was on the track, with the incident, it wasn’t just this new Chase format that creates more intensity, I was looking slightly ahead at what could be my final year.”
Gordon said last season, a four-win campaign in which he led the point standings for much of the year, only fueled him to go out on top this year.
”I’m motivated by that. As good as we ran last year, I don’t see any reason why we can’t do that one more time,” he said.
Here are some other interesting things Gordon told AP about his career:
ON DALE EARNHARDT: Gordon had an early rivalry with the blue-collar Earnhardt, who ribbed the ”Wonder Boy” when he first broke into NASCAR. They had a rivalry on the track, but an appreciation for one another off it that developed into a friendship.
Gordon said he was reminded of some of his early days with Earnhardt this week in a discussion with one of the late champion’s confidants.
”I was always so confused as to why he and I spent the amount of time together at the track that we did,” Gordon said. ”I never understood it, and this person told me, `Well, he had so much respect for you.’ I thought, `That’s funny. Why would he have respect for me? I was just some punk kid.’
”But I had tremendous respect for him and looked up to him. And even though we had our run-ins on the race track, and our fans were complete opposites, there definitely was a common respect there.”
Gordon credits Earnhardt for showing him what he could accomplish through NASCAR, both with on-track success and off-track opportunities.
ON HIS CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Of his 92 wins and four championships, Gordon believes his victory in the inaugural race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the best moment of his career.
Although he was born in California, he moved as a young driver to Indiana for more racing opportunities, and the relocation gave him a profound respect for Indianapolis. But he was never able to move up the ladder in Indy cars, and instead made a move to NASCAR that initially shut the door on his chances to race at the Brickyard.
But when NASCAR made its debut there in 1994, he finally got his chance.
”Driving into that race track as a kid, picking up Valvoline oil, watching Indy cars there … I hate that I was never there in an Indy car,” he said. ”But to go there and do that in a stock car in their inaugural race was amazing.”
He believes to this day that the Brickyard win propelled him into superstar status.
”All the things that I could dream of, if I could have scripted what it was like to be a professional race car driver, that would be it,” he said. ”To have that moment transcend you, and maybe even your sport to another level to where you become a household name – all of a sudden your face is on billboards and you are signing autographs and getting your picture taken and people are recognizing you and you are making more money than you ever knew you could possibly make and you are part of a team that you are going to every race with a shot at winning – that, to me, that all changed after that day.”
ON WHAT HE’LL MISS MOST: Gordon didn’t use the word ”retire” because he doesn’t want to rule out racing again.
He said he’ll remain with Hendrick Motorsports in a role that hasn’t been revealed yet, but was confident the weekly competition will be a tough void to fill.
”I’m going to miss going out there and getting behind the wheel of the car and knowing that your input, verbally as well as physically, it makes a difference,” he said. ”It’s about experiencing what it’s like to pull into victory lane at Daytona, or Indianapolis, or winning a championship. That’s just an amazing feeling.
”Even though you lose a lot more than you win, it’s those moments of being proud of what role you played in it. That’s going to be tough to fulfill. Unless I’m in a competitive environment, I am going to yearn for that.”
ON HIS FINAL SEASON: Gordon didn’t want to be a driver who goes out with a sappy farewell tour in which he receives parting gifts from every track. But he had to announce his decision, and it made for a very emotional day filled with tears that he insisted were out of happiness.
Still, he acknowledges there’s some uneasiness about life outside the No. 24.
”Of course I’m nervous. I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I take that last lap,” he said.
But, for now, he’s focused on one final season.
”I’m pumped up and excited about this year and keeping the momentum from last year and go out on top,” he said.