Farewell ride: Jeff Gordon’s bid for fifth title falls short at Homestead

The perfect Hollywood ending wasn’t meant to be.

Jeff Gordon, making the 797th and final start of his illustrious NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, fell short on Sunday night in his much-celebrated bid to capture the elusive fifth title he had chased since becoming a four-time champion in 2001.

After spending most of Sunday’s winner-take-all championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway battling an ill-handling car, Gordon finished sixth –€“ third among the Championship 4 — as Kyle Busch claimed his first championship in NASCAR’s top series.

It was an emotional and bittersweet day for Gordon, who was honored during the pre-race drivers meeting by NASCAR chairman Brian France as multiple drivers donned No. 24 hats in a show of respect and appreciation to the Hendrick Motorsports driver for his NASCAR Hall of Fame career and countless contributions to the sport.

After taking several minutes to pose for pictures with his wife and children, crew chief and close friends who all gathered near his car parked out on the grid, Gordon climbed in the famed No. 24 Chevy for his last ride.

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Starting fifth and second among the Championship 4, Gordon wasted little time moving forward and sent the South Florida crowd into a frenzy when he took the lead on Lap 36 and remained out front for nine laps.

But as the race wore on — and it became clear that Busch and Kevin Harvick had the best cars among the four title contenders — Gordon faded as his Chevy suffered from lack of grip.

Numerous adjustments to the No. 24 machine throughout the 267-lap race resulted in only modest gains, leading Gordon to voice his frustration over the in-car radio to crew chief Alan Gustafson.

With around 100 laps to go, while running 10th, Gordon’s emotions boiled over.

"I don’t know how the hell we’re going to work on this," he radioed to Gustafson. "I’m so loose off the corner at the beginning (of the run) it’s ridiculous. And then it just goes tight, tight, tight."

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A few laps later, after a restart, Gordon keyed the mic and said, "I’m just getting absolutely slaughtered."

Following a caution, Gordon lined up last among the Championship 4 with 96 to go, but needed just 16 laps to run down fellow title contender Martin Truex Jr. for the ninth position.

After lining up 10th on the race’s final restart with eight laps to go, Gordon climbed to sixth, but it wasn’t enough as he came up short in his quest to put the storybook cap on his amazing career.

After emerging from the No. 24 car one final time, Gordon presented his last driving helmet to his boss, Rick Hendrick, the man who took a big chance on him in 1993 by giving him an opportunity to race full time for Hendrick Motorsports.

At the time, many considered it a leap of faith to hire Gordon — a 22-year-old Northern California-born Indiana transplant who didn’t fit the mold of the day’s Southeastern-heavy driver base.

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Just as Gordon’s stellar career will hardly be defined by Sunday’s disappointment, his last day as a Sprint Cup driver won’t be defined by it, either — especially after it started with a surprise visit to his motorhome from his mother, Carol, who wasn’t at the track on Saturday.

"I was planning on sleeping in, and I was too excited, so I woke up a little earlier, pulled up the shades on my bus, and my mom just happened to be walking by," Gordon said. "As soon as I saw her, I got emotional. Before she even came in the bus, I just saw her, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m bringing her in here right now.’ … That just made my day start so amazing, to be able to sit down with her, first thing in the morning, and all the emotions and everything were just able to come out, and then we just had a great conversation."

"It was just perfect," he said. "We just missed it a little bit on the race."