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.”