Friday, January 23, 2015

Jeff Gordon makes one last Drive for Five


Credit Charlotte Bray / Skirts and Scuffs
When the green flag waves at Daytona in 2016, a new chapter of NASCAR history will begin. One without Jeff Gordon behind the wheel of the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports. 

He carefully avoided the “r” word in his press conference Thursday, but sitting beside car owner and partner Rick Hendrick, Gordon announced the 2015 season will be his last to compete for a Sprint Cup championship. 

“I always said I wanted to step away on my own terms if possible, and I want to be competitive out there, and I hoped that I could do that all the way through my final year,” said Gordon.  

“This is the right time. I think it really became clear about halfway through last season that it was definitely going to be. Rick kept talking me into going longer and longer and longer. And I kept saying, ‘No, I think this is the year. I think this is the year.'"

"Finally about halfway through last year I said, ‘No. This is it, Boss,’ and we agreed and the timing was good for me, good for Hendrick and other opportunities that are out in front of us.” 

The four-time champion ended the 2014 season with four wins to bring his career total to 92, third on NASCAR's all-time list. His streak of 761 consecutive Cup starts leads all active drivers, and is only trailing the all-time leader Ricky Rudd by 27 green flags. 

Gordon has never missed a Cup race, and he's never driven one for anyone other than Rick Hendrick. He's never driven any Cup car other than the No. 24. 

Many fans suspected that Gordon would step down after the 2015 season when Hendrick extended Kasey Kahne’s contract for three seasons. After all, Chase Elliott will need a Cup ride in 2016, and NASCAR rules only allow an owner to field four full-time teams. 

Hendrick refused to be baited into confirming plans for Elliott, though. 

“We're going to kind of focus on Jeff and what he's accomplished, and then at a later time we'll kind of focus on who is going to be in the car.” 

Don’t expect 2015 to be a farewell tour, though. For the upcoming season, Gordon’s goal is to finally win that elusive fifth championship. He’s not happy about having not won under the Chase format. He’d like nothing better than to hang up his helmet next to a Sprint Cup trophy, so he’s avoiding all the hoopla that would accompany such a season. 

“It really bums me out I haven't won one under this format,” Gordon said. “We've been close, but haven't won it, and I'm using that as motivation in this final season to run for the championship and to go out there and get it done."

“I want my focus to be on driving that race car to the best of my ability, and I don't think that you can do that and try to have this retirement or sign off type of festivities every weekend. So my plan is that I'll be back at the track in 2016 doing all kinds of things with the fans.” 

Gordon has no plans to slow down, though he won’t be behind the wheel of a Cup car. “That's not me. I plan on working …. I'm actually going to have to get a real job now.” 

He didn’t rule out driving again. "I want to leave myself open, as well, to be able to get in a car. It doesn't have to be a Cup car. It could be an (Xfinity) car. It could be a truck. It could be a prototype for Le Mans or the Rolex. It might not be any of those things,” Gordon said. “I think the chances are pretty good that Homestead will be the last race that you see me in. But, again, I don't know that for a fact. But I know that I'm not going to come back and do a part‑time schedule.”

When asked about his legacy and how he wants to be remembered, Gordon said, “I think of who my heroes were when I was growing up: A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser, Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang ... I grew up in an open‑wheel arena where I grew up in California is all about Sprint Car racing and the Indy 500. It wasn't until much later that I started watching NASCAR.”

“So what drew me to those legends and those guys and their legacy was how many races they won. I love the fact that those guys won four Indianapolis 500s and championships and that they were great race car drivers." 

 "Quite simply, I'll be happy if people recognize me as a great race car driver because that's all I ever wanted to be.”

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