Last shot: Jeff Gordon takes aim at Victory Lane in final Daytona 500
For four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, there’s still plenty of time to think about his final full season of competition and all the attendant hoopla that inevitably will accompany it.
But right now, there is just one thing and one thing only on his mind: Winning his fourth Daytona 500 on Sunday.
And he’s got a fair-to-middling chance to do just that.
Gordon and his iconic No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will start the Daytona 500 from the pole after topping qualifying on Sunday, when he became the first driver since Bill Elliott in 1987 to exceed 200 miles per hour in Daytona time trials. Gordon had a best lap of 201.293 mph, well below Elliott’s record of 210.364 mph, but fast enough to claim the pole nevertheless.
On top of that, Gordon finished second behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Thursday night’s first Budweiser Duel at Daytona 150 qualifying race.
All of which has Gordon relaxed and confident. And because he’s in his last year, he has nothing to lose by going for it.
"It’s kind of all or nothing for me," said Gordon. "I got one last chance. I can take chances. I mean, yeah, I want to win the championship. I want points. But right now it’s the Daytona 500. All I want to focus on is winning the Daytona 500. I’m just enjoying the ride, enjoying the moment."
Gordon’s moment, like all moments, is fleeting.
And when Gordon is no longer driving, the sport will be changed.
"When someone of his caliber isn’t on the track, it definitely is going to have a big effect," said Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson. "Not only in the 500 next year, but the entire season. Our sport is going to be different without him there. … For 23 years, he’s been such a force on the track. Our sport is not going to necessarily suffer from it, but it’s just not the same. It’s Jeff Gordon."
If competitors appreciate Gordon more than they once did, Gordon in return appreciates how big this race is.
"I didn’t really watch the Daytona 500 until I was in my teens. I was always focused on Indianapolis," Gordon said. "It’s taken me 20 years to get the appreciation for this sport, the greats, the history. Of course, winning it. I feel like the first year I won it in ’97, I didn’t have a full appreciation for the history of this sport.
"That race meant a lot to me, but it didn’t mean near as much to me as after I won the second one and the third one," said Gordon. "I don’t know, just a kid who grew up in open-wheel racing in California. That’s not what we did back then. But that has changed in a big way."
Indeed it has.
Over the last decade especially, Gordon has become one of the faces of the sport, a respected driver and active philanthropist, as well as a devoted husband and father.
He won’t be focusing on those things Sunday, though. Instead, it will be business as usual, which means trying to add another victory to the 92 wins he already has in his storied career.
Sunday afternoon, Gordon will be ready. And he’ll be a little calmer than in prior years.
"I’m way less stressed than I’ve been in the past," the four-time champion said. "Now that’s going to intensify a little bit in the race. That’s just me and my nature. But still there’s just something about it where if you don’t win, ‘Oh, well, it’s not the end of the world.’ But, boy, if you can win it, what a storybook type of beginning to the season it would be."
Indeed, it would.
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