Why Jeff Gordon’s Sprint Cup retirement tour will be unlike any other

5 Comments

Jeff Gordon’s Sprint Cup retirement tour won’t happen until he officially is retired and no longer feted as the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

In a changeup from the farewell seasons of recent Sprint Cup stars (such as Rusty Wallace) that featured an incessant salute of pomp and circumstance, the four-time series champion plans to play it low-key in 2015 during his final full-time campaign because he doesn’t want to detract from his push to finish as a champion.

“I want my focus to be on driving that race car to the best of my ability,” Gordon said Thursday in announcing he would step away after his 23rd final full-time season. “I don’t think we can do that and try to have a retirement or sign-off festivities. My plan is to be back in 2016 doing all kinds of things with the fans and with Hendrick Motorsports. I’ll be a major fixture at the track in 2016.

“I look forward to really giving interaction to the fans who have been so loyal to me. They want me to be competitive. That means a lot to them. I found that out through Twitter especially. The only way is to really be focused on with the team meetings, debrief, going over the data. That’s the decision we made that goes beyond ’15 as part of our plans.”

Gordon avoided using the word “retirement” because he is leaving the door open to running the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series in NASCAR or sports car in the future.

But he ruled out a part-time Cup schedule and said the “chances are pretty good” that the Nov. 22 season finale would be his last in NACAR’s premier series.

“The way I see myself in the world, (retirement means) I’d need to go off to a beach somewhere, sit in a rocking chair, drinking coffee, petting the dog, and that’s not me,” he said. “I plan on working. I’m actually going to have to go get a real job. When I think of retirement, I don’t think that’s what I’m doing.

“I want to leave myself open as well to be able to get in a car. … I don’t plan on doing many races … but I know I won’t be retiring. Because I have a lot on my plate already that we have plans for and talked about for the future.”

Gordon scored four victories in 2014, marking the most in a single season since six in 2007. He averaged a finish of 10.4 (best in five years) and starting position of 9.0 (best in a decade) in reaching the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

If Ryan Newman hadn’t knocked Kyle Larson aside for a spot on the last lap at Phoenix International Raceway, Gordon would have been among the final four racing for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where his No. 24 Chevrolet led a race-high 161 of 267 laps.

That renaissance helped inspire Gordon to believe the timing was right to step away after the 2015 season because he could exit at the top of his game. He made the decision midway through the 2014 season because his performance “confirmed it even more that I could be 20-plus years into my career and be that competitive.

“There’s no doubt in last couple of years, I’ve been faced with those thoughts that … I wasn’t having fun showing up to the track,” he said. “Last year changed that for me. It built my confidence up. I feel we’re going to be able to continue that momentum in 2015. Nothing would make me happier than signing off on this amazing career I’ve had at Homestead and knowing I went out, of course, on top, but if that’s not possible. I want to go out being competitive.”

And what would happen if his final year was a letdown?

“There’s a possibility we might not have a great year,” he said. “Right now I feel really good about it because of the way we ran. But if we don’t, it’s still a heck of a career. I’m going to try to enjoy myself more than I normally do.

“Normally I take it so darn seriously, that sometimes no matter how we run, I don’t always enjoy it. I want to enjoy this season to the fullest. I want my family around me, being a part of it. I’m looking forward to going to the track and smiling, watching … enjoying the friendships I’ve made over the years.”

Gordon said his decision also was driven by the length of Hendrick Motorsports’ sponsorship contracts. He is a part owner of teammate Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet and intimately involved in the multicar organization’s business interests with team owner Rick Hendrick.

“It was never the plan to end after ’14,” Gordon said. “I made the joke about winning the championship and riding off into the sun, but even if I’d won the championship, that wouldn’t have happened, because I’m partners with Rick, I know how the business is. I knew as competitive as I was, I wasn’t quite ready. There were business commitments there.”

Gordon, who nearly missed last year’s Coca-Cola 600 with an injured back, said his health also weighed in the decision, as well as time with his family. He got emotional sharing the news Thursday morning with his daughter, Ella, before heading to the shop to inform the team.

“Today is an emotional day for me,” he said. “I had to tell my daughter that I was going to tell people. She saw me get emotional. I saw a look in her eyes that she’d never seen me like that. … I’m very proud of what I’ve done and accomplished. I’m a little sad there’ll be a day I step out of the car for the last time. I knew it would come at some time. I feel this is the right time.”

Hendrick seems to have a clear replacement lined up for Gordon’s ride in reigning Xfinity champion Chase Elliott, who is under contract to Hendrick and expected to run a few Cup races this year while defending his title on the lower circuit.

“We’re just looking down the road a little later,” Hendrick said. “We want to focus on Jeff and what he’s accomplished. At a later time, we will focus on who’s going to be in the car.”

NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

NHRA
Leave a comment

There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

Follow @JerryBonkowski