HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There were smiles and there were tears, but there was no storybook ending for Jeff Gordon.
The 44-year-old will retire after 797 races, 93 wins and four championships. An incredible first-ballot Hall of Fame career. But there will be no fifth championship as a send-off into the next phase of his career as a broadcaster and more frequent attendee of kids’ birthday parties and soccer games.
That last page proved too fantastical to come true even in what has been a storybook finish to his career on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
In finishing sixth, Gordon did not leave a champion but he left with grace.
"I’m a little disappointed; I’ll be honest," Gordon said when the race ended. "When the sun went down, we were missing a little something … just didn’t have something. ... It’s a happy, happy, good day. I wanted to win but we’re still going to celebrate.”
He knew when it was time to go, knew even a few years ago but continued to race and thrived under the urging of friends and family and his team owner Rick Hendrick. In displaying a self-awareness rare in ultra-successful athletes, he left on his own terms, and awash in respect and praise from fans and peers who surrounded his No. 24 Chevrolet before the race.
This was no John Elway ending, winning a championship and an MVP award in his final game, as the Denver Broncos quarterback did in winning Super Bowl XXXIII. But this was no Derek Jeter slow fade, not in any way.
Jeff Gordon took a final walk down the track at Homestead-Miami Speedway ahead of his last race. USA TODAY Sports
Gordon qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup on points after not earning a win in the 26-race regular season, but advanced through two rounds to force he and Hendrick to dare believe this sort of ending was possible. For those who have been close to Gordon as he rose from California-via-Indiana sprint car dervish to template for modern drivers – NASCAR, IndyCar, the lot - this dash for a final title may have been no surprise. But for the cynical outside world, where fairytale endings are quashed, this should not have happened.
It seemed more destined to happen when Gordon won for the ninth time at Martinsville Speedway in the first race of the third round of this Chase, benefitting from Matt Kenseth’s punt of race-leading Joey Logano to earn an automatic berth in the one-off final here.
But on Sunday, reality. And in this case, not a bad reality, despite the initial disappointment.
Jeff Gordon didn’t give his fans one more championship. But he gave them one more memory, and an exit worthy of his career.