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Hendrick employees receive Gordon commemorative rings
Photos courtesy of Jeff Gordon 's Twitter account, @JeffGordonWeb RELATED: Photos of Gordon through the years Christmas arrived in April at Hendrick Motorsports on Tuesday, and it was worth the wait. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon was on hand with team owner Rick Hendrick to distribute some pretty slick hardware. Celebrating Gordon's career in style, Hendrick and the NASCAR on FOX broadcaster gave out more than 600 rings commemorating the driver of the No. 24's legendary career. Gordon tweeted about the special gathering. Handing out career commemorating rings to everyone @TeamHendrick . Thankful to be part of this organization. #TeamJG pic.twitter.com/VkFJG3UhiX — Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) April 26, 2016
Jeff Gordon to return to the site of his last NSCS win
NASCAR.com’s Jonathan Merryman talks with NASCAR on Fox Analyst Jeff Gordon about the upcoming race weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
Keselowski and Hendrick: What might have been
On April 18, 2009, Mark Martin won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway . It was the 36th NASCAR premier series win for the 50-year-old driver and his first with team owner Rick Hendrick. A week and a day later, Brad Keselowski won the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway . It was the first career win for the 25-year-old, and the first premier series victory for independent car owner James Finch. Two distinctly different races won by two distinctly different drivers. Martin's NASCAR career was beginning to wind down; Keselowski's, on the other hand, appeared to have only just begun. But there was one string that tied the two together -- Hendrick Motorsports . HMS was home to Martin, Jimmie Johnson , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . And it was expected by many to be the future home of the up-and-coming kid from Rochester Hills, Michigan. But a collection of factors that came together throughout the course of that season altered the racing landscape as well as the career path of Keselowski. It would be nearly three years before the next driver change at HMS. By then Keselowski had not only found a new home, but he was also on his way to winning the Sprint Cup championship. 'I WAS NOT GOING TO LOSE' The sun was out and the grandstands were packed when the 2009 Aaron's 499, the season's ninth Sprint Cup race, went green for the final time. As race leader Ryan Newman tried to keep Earnhardt Jr., the crowd favorite, in check, Keselowski darted to the inside behind Carl Edwards on the track's massive backstretch. It was a move that didn’t seem to mean much at the time. But at the start-finish line with two laps remaining, Edwards and Keselowski shot to the outside entering Turn 1. "Here they come; look at the 99 and ..." NASCAR on FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip began. " Brad Keselowski ," lead announcer Mike Joy and co-analyst Larry McReynolds chimed in. When the white flag appeared, Edwards and Keselowski had caught and were beginning to pull away from Newman and Earnhardt Jr. Racing back through the tri-oval, Keselowski turned his No. 09 Chevrolet to the outside, and then quickly dropped to the bottom as Edwards moved up to block. Realizing the bottom lane was now open, Edwards reacted quickly -- but not quickly enough. Contact sent the No. 99 Ford spinning. Edwards' car came off the track briefly and was beginning to settle back onto the track it was struck by Newman's Chevrolet. The impact sent Edwards roof-first into the frontstretch catch fence. Meanwhile, Keselowski kept his foot in the gas, racing across the finish line for the win just ahead of Earnhardt Jr. "I was not going to lose," Keselowski said in his post-race winner's interview. "I was not going to lift and (I was going to) hold my ground and consequences be damned." A full-time competitor at the time for JR Motorsports (which, coincidentally, counts Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick among its ownership group) in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Keselowski said he didn't know what the future held after his first premier series win. "I know I don't have anything locked in," he said. "That's really all I can say ... I don't have a job secured for next year, and everything to this point has been wait-and-see. I know this certainly can't hurt." But behind the scenes, moves were already underway. Finch's Phoenix Racing, which purchased it engines from HMS, had put Keselowski in the car at the suggestion of Hendrick. And the JRM/Hendrick pipeline, which grooms talent in the lower series to help restock the Sprint Cup program, was taking root. Keselowski had made two starts for Hendrick the previous year, and would make seven all together in '09, in addition to five races with Finch. Perhaps his future wasn't as cloudy as it appeared. "Rick had come out and told me, actually had made it a point to say to the media that he thought I was a future driver at Hendrick," Keselowski told NASCAR.com recently. There was only one problem. SWAN SONG? On July 4, 2008, HMS officials announced that Martin had signed a two-year agreement to drive the organization's No. 5 Chevrolet. According to the news release, Martin, who would run a full schedule in 2009, would "run a partial Sprint Cup schedule ... in 2010, sharing the No. 5 Chevy with a to-be-determined second driver.” By most accounts, that driver was expected to be Keselowski. But in May of '09, less than three weeks after Martin's Phoenix victory, HMS officials announced a revision to the '08 agreement. The veteran driver would return in 2010 to once again run the entire season. With Keselowski waiting in the wings and Martin winning and agreeing to return the following year, "Rick was kind of half pregnant," Keselowski said. "He (was) stuck. "My feeling was, after I had won Talladega, I'm going to get this 5 car ride partially next year, pair it with something else, let's go. I didn't know what it was going to be. We'll figure it out; let's go." A phone call and subsequent meeting with Hendrick, however, changed all that. "I was kind of expecting more of a 'Hey, we're going to expedite the process of clearing out the rest of this,' " Keselowski said of the meeting, "And instead I got a 'Hey, I don't have a ride for you. You need to figure something else out. I'll try to help.' "That was late April, early May of that year. My intent ... was to give him that time to kind of make right on it somehow, find a ride because he had made me the promise that I would have that car. It didn't sit all that well, but I understood the circumstances and so forth." Months passed and Keselowski busied himself with his full-time XFINITY Series effort at JRM while making a handful of Sprint Cup starts for Hendrick and Finch. Hendrick, in the meantime, was exploring the various avenues that might keep Keselowski in the HMS camp. Possible scenarios included Stewart-Haas Racing , at the time a two-team effort, and Red Bull Racing. Consideration was even given to fielding a Sprint Cup entry out of the JR Motorsports shop, according to the owner. But the pieces didn't fit and as the summer wore on, Keselowski's future remained uncertain. "I wanted him to wait a year," Hendrick told NASCAR.com. "... I don't remember all the details, but I do remember that Mark had done so well, and I had tried to talk (Mark) into staying. "I've told all our guys, the first time I sat down with Brad he impressed me because he was so intense about the whole car and wanted to be involved in everything. He was just so committed. I told our guys he's got the right attitude about racing and driving. I just needed him to wait." Waiting, though, wasn't part of Keselowski's plan. "My perception is a driver is a lot like a perishable fruit," Keselowski said. "You've got so much time, then he spoils and goes bad. There are a lot of variables, much like anything." PENSKE COMES CALLING The Keselowski family has always been involved in racing. Brad's father Bob was an ARCA Series standout and a former winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Ron Keselowski, an uncle, scored two top-five finishes in 68 premier series starts while older brother Brian Keselowski has one or more starts in all three of NASCAR's national series. "We knew the Keselowski name from being here in Detroit," Walt Czarnecki, an executive vice president at Penske Corp., said. "His dad, his uncle, all that. They would run out at MIS ( Michigan International Speedway ) when (Penske) owned the track." But it was a business associate, lawyer/agent John Caponigro, who brought up the young driver's name during a conversation in 2009. "We thought he was committed to Hendrick," Czarnecki said. "He'd been on loan to James Finch to run several races. But some things were changing." Conversations with Keselowski ensued, in Michigan as well as Mooresville, North Carolina, where Team Penske is headquartered. "All this time," Czarnecki said, "Still having this somewhat uncertain situation with Mr. Hendrick." Team Penske had grown from a two-team to a three-team organization in '08, fielding cars for drivers Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr . In '09 Newman departed to join owner/driver Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing and 32-year-old David Stremme was brought on board to fill the open seat. But the Keselowski opportunity was intriguing, according to Czarnecki. "We've tried to sign on what we consider to be the best available young drivers with a great deal of potential that we could mold and have them grow in our organization," he said. "And I think that Brad certainly fit that description. "But above and beyond that, he had a bigger vision as to what role he wanted to play in terms of the development of the team. ... Just how he saw different things coming together ... "Some of it may have been a little unrealistic; some of it was certainly the enthusiasm of a young man who had a goal in mind. ... But he had this great enthusiasm and he had this great desire and this great commitment. And that appealed to us." With the Hendrick effort seemingly stalled, Keselowski went back to Penske with a request -- to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series. In addition to its Sprint Cup effort, Team Penske was fielding one full-time XFINITY Series team with driver Justin Allgaier . Expanding that program to two teams running all the races was problematic, given the economy at the time. Told such a scenario was unlikely, Keselowski was left to consider his few available options. But Penske officials continued to work until enough of the appropriate pieces were in place. "Sure enough, Roger called me one night and said 'Alright, I've got it put together,' " Keselowski said. "It kind of caught me off guard. I was sold. That's it; he made it happen." "I couldn't sit around and wait. ... Roger had gone above and beyond to put something together that I felt like was the opportunity I needed. ... The economy was on its way down fast; Roger (through his various businesses) had a lot of immunities to the economy. Rick made it very clear to me that he was not going to invest himself without having a sponsor, and the economy was not in a spot where he could facilitate that." Hendrick had been aware of the Penske interest from the beginning, having had conversations with his fellow team owner about Keselowski's status. "Roger called me and asked me could he talk to him," Hendrick said. "I didn't want to stand in his way. Brad's a hell of a talent. It was a timing issue. "It's worked out for him. At his age it would have been nice if we could have kept him. ... If I got a call from Roger and I was in his spot I would have done exactly what he did." POSTSCRIPT On Sept. 1, 2009, Team Penske officials announced that the organization had signed Keselowski to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series beginning the following season. Since then, Keselowski has won 17 Sprint Cup races, 28 XFINITY Series races and championships in both series. "I don't want to sound mercenary but he brought us our first Sprint Cup championship (in 2012)," Czarnecki said. "Because that vision that he outlined, we tried to work with him and bring people along, bring people into the organization, have him work with people like (crew chief) Paul Wolfe, it was really the realization of that vision. That's what it (has) meant. "And his intensity hasn't changed." Former teammates Busch and Hornish have departed, and fellow driver AJ Allmendinger has come and gone. Keselowski, now 32, is the veteran of a Penske group that now includes 25-year-old teammate Joey Logano . "I wasn’t looking to switch," Keselowski said. "If things would have gone the way they were supposed to go before Mark won that race at Phoenix, I would still be there."
Gordon , Waltrip may disagree, but respect is mutual
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The respect was there from the beginning, a carryover from years of competing against one another on the track. The understanding has been a bit slower to materialize as the two former rivals became co-workers, but it's coming along nicely according to NASCAR on FOX analyst Jeff Gordon . The four-time premier series champion, speaking Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, said there are no issues between himself and fellow NASCAR on FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip. "We all understand the age difference and the different eras where we were dominant in our sport, but the respect that DW and I have for one another has always been there," Gordon , 44, said during an appearance to help promote this Sunday's STP 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Martinsville Speedway (1 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Gordon retired from driving at the conclusion of the 2015 season with 93 victories to go along with his four titles. Waltrip, a staple in the FOX broadcast booth since 2001, ended his career with 84 wins and three championships. "In the booth, even though we might not always agree on things, because we have common respect for one another … it probably took a little bit of time of that understanding and having more personal time together, at dinner and meetings and texting back and forth - but our relationship is great," Gordon said. "And I think we're having a lot of fun." There have been differences of opinion, but Gordon said fans shouldn't read "controversy" into those situations. When Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick pitted for tires and fuel under green and then inherited the lead in the Auto Club 400 thanks to a caution flag barely two laps after his stop, the question for Gordon and Waltrip was who benefited? Harvick because of the immediate gain in track position as those who hadn't previouly stopped came to pit road, or Jimmie Johnson , the race leader at the time of the caution, who restarted second after a two-tire change? "I wouldn't call it a disagreement but a difference of opinions," Gordon said of the conversation. "The nice thing … (whichever) one of us is right and one of us is wrong, we smile about it, pat one another on the back, make jabs about it and go on. I think at first fans were taking that maybe the wrong way or people at home were taking that as 'Oh man, these guys genuinely don't like one another.' "No … we do have differences of how we see things and we're going to express that. But at the end of the day we're going to have fun and enjoy those differences and not take it personally." The Auto Club Speedway discussion was similar to one just a few weeks earlier when rev limiters on the cars was the topic. Waltrip, 69, later addressed that particular discussion in a posting on the FOXSports.com website. "Some of you have tweeted suspecting there's friction, but trust me, you couldn't be more wrong," Waltrip wrote. "Just because we don't agree on everything doesn't mean I don't like him and he doesn't like me. Who wants a booth where they all think, sound and act alike? I sure don't." With five races in the booth under his belt, Gordon is becoming more comfortable in his new role. Whenever possible, he arrives at the track on Friday morning and heads into the garage as soon as it opens. "My old crew chief, Alan Gustafson, is all mad at me (saying), 'Oh sure, you stop driving and now you decide to come in the garage area at 8 o'clock when it opens up,' Gordon said. "I said, 'Yeah, I didn't need to know all this stuff before. I just drove the car.' " Those early-morning conversations allow him to catch up on topics of the day and get acquainted with many people he once raced against. "When you're up in that booth and mentioning names, it's nice to put a face with it and have a conversation with … (No. 78 crew chief) Cole Pearn comes to mind, someone I talked to at Daytona," he said. "… A lot of these guys, I've been on the other side where they're my competitors and I didn't really get to know them. "Now I'm looking at it as personalities that really make up our sport. And I don't think our job on Sunday in the broadcast booth is to come up with some revelation of 'Hey, somebody’s doing this or doing that and that's how they're getting a competitive advantage.' "It's not necessarily that, but if something happens, you want to have knowledge. And understand why they're doing that. Or why they're not doing that. Whether it's a pit call … an adjustment to the car or what the car looks like on the race track." Such understanding, he said, is important in his new role. And thus far, it's been extremely helpful. "In the times I've gone in the garage are I probably have learned more in that hour that I've been there than I have in years, actually," he said.
Chase Elliott earns 21 Means 21 Pole Award at Talladega
RELATED: Lineup " See all 40 cars TALLADEGA, Ala. – Numerologists doubtless will have a field day with the front row for Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (on FOX at 1 p.m. ET, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Touring the 2.66-mile race track in 49.704 seconds (192.661 mph) during Saturday's time trials, Chase Elliott put the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the pole, making the 20-year-old rookie driver two-for-two at restrictor-plate superspeedways. In his first qualifying run as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, Elliott won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 . The pole was the sixth at Talladega for the No. 24, the first five having been recorded by Jeff Gordon , who retired after the 2015 season and turned the car over to Elliott. And the pole run came roughly 30 years after Elliott's father, Bill Elliott , earned the top starting spot for the spring Talladega race with a lap at 212.229 mph, before restrictor plates were introduced at the superspeedways. Coincidentally, Bill Elliott also won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 1986. "This is definitely a special place," Chase Elliott said after his pole-winning run. "It's cool to get it done today. This is a team effort, and those guys and everybody at the No. 5 and No. 24 shop, in particular, and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and the Hendrick engine department and obviously (sponsor) NAPA Auto parts. "But, man, this is cool. Those guys do such a good job. And as I said in Daytona, this had nothing to do with me. This is the car that we had. This is the same car we had in Daytona. They brought another fast one here." The car Elliott beat for the pole, the No. 3 Chevrolet driven by Austin Dillon (192.424 mph), also has a noteworthy history at Talladega. Driving the No. 3 for owner Richard Childress, Dillon’s grandfather, the late Dale Earnhardt collected nine of his 10 Talladega victories and all three of his Talladega poles. "There's a lot of history here with Dale and RCR," Dillon said. "A lot of good stuff happened with RCR here, so hopefully we can continue that streak of good runs for RCR here. We’ve got a car capable of doing that, obviously, with the qualifying effort, and I'd love for it to be my first Cup win." Dale Earnhardt Jr ., who has never won a pole at NASCAR's biggest oval track but has six race wins on his resume here, qualified third at 192.293 mph. Matt Kenseth (192.181 mph) claimed the fourth position on the grid, followed by Jimmie Johnson (192.116 mph) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr . (192.089 mph). The only other driver to top 192 mph was seventh-place starter Brad Keselowski (192.008 mph), a three-time Talladega winner. Ty Dillon qualified the No. 14 Chevrolet for Tony Stewart and earned the 14th starting spot, but Stewart will start Sunday’s race and will have to drop to the rear for the green flag because of the driver change. The plan is for Stewart, who returned to action last Sunday at Richmond after injuring his back during the offseason, to turn the car over to Dillon during the first caution of the race. Note: Josh Wise failed to make the 40-car field.
Move over Nelly, Kanye -- it's Jeff Gordon rapping
MORE: NASCAR Goes West? How 'bout (Kanye) West Goes NASCAR? Look, we all know Jeff Gordon can breakdance, but don't get your hopes up on ever seeing the four-time premier series champ and recently retired driver spinning for us any time soon. Especially since he wouldn't even do it for the Leader of the Free World, President Barack Obama. RELATED: Breakdancing with Barack? Gordon passes So what's the next best thing? Gordon rapping? Yeah, we're just going to go ahead and say the next best thing is Gordon rapping. With NASCAR out west for Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio), Gordon stopped by FOX Sports Live in L.A. for an interview with FOX Sports Live hosts Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, who got the broadcaster to flex his flow and rap some lyrics from songs that name drop him, from Nelly to Kanye West. It's nothing short of amazing. Mic drop. @JeffGordonWeb raps @kanyewest and @Nelly_Mo . We also found his long lost relative. What an interview. Wow https://t.co/1dRdOpTTuk — FSLive: #JayAndDan (@foxsportslive) March 19, 2016 Mic drop. @JeffGordonWeb raps @kanyewest and @Nelly_Mo . We also found his long lost relative. What an interview. Wow https://t.co/1dRdOpTTuk — FSLive: #JayAndDan (@foxsportslive) March 19, 2016
Jeff Gordon's career coming to a glorious close
MORE: Sunday's full lineup RELATED: Gordon's top 24 NASCAR moments " Full Gordon coverage HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Busy week, surrounded by a lot of friends and family, a legendary figure making the final start of his career with a shot at going out as a five-time champion. Racer. Philanthropist. Father. What's there to say about Jeff Gordon that hasn't been said? What's there to write that hasn't been written? Do a Google search for " Jeff Gordon " and the search engine generates approximately 79 million results. Tom Brady? 83.1 million. Kobe Bryant? 34.6 million. Derek Jeter? 14 million. Gordon , 44, is one of those rare athletes who have transcended their individual sport. A champion on the track? Without question. Off the track? Certainly. Television and tabloids flock to him. He purchased a second residence in New York City in part to escape the spotlight and to navigate life in between races unimpeded by the fame that followed him elsewhere. Maybe he would not carry the same clout or create the same buzz had he chosen another profession. Then again, perhaps his impact would have been even greater elsewhere. A precocious, driven youngster whose family packed up moved east from California in order to continue his development as a racer. A NASCAR premier series champion at 24. And 26. And 27. And 30. Now, at 44, is there one more title in the tank? What's there to say that hasn't been said, write that hasn't been written? WATCH: Gordon's first Homestead win The Alpha and Omega NASCAR didn't begin with Gordon , and it certainly won't end when the Hendrick Motorsports driver climbs from his No. 24 Chevrolet for the final time on Sunday evening. "Everybody's career comes to an end," Richard Petty said. "He's going out strong. I admire him for that part of it. "I wouldn't mind seeing him win the championship because he's meant so much to NASCAR over the years. They're going to miss him a whole lot from that standpoint." There is no one in the sport more qualified to speak on such matters than the man known simply as "The King." Now 78, Petty set the standard for champions on the track as well as how to conduct oneself outside the car. Icon, inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame member, winner of 200 races and seven championships, Petty is NASCAR. The Petty family is NASCAR. Petty's father, Lee, won three titles, 54 races and was in the very first sanctioned race. He, too, is a member of the Hall of Fame. The careers of Richard Petty and Gordon are inextricably linked by a single date – Nov. 15, 1992. Petty made his 1,184th and final start in NASCAR's premier series. Gordon made his very first in the same event. Petty met privately with Gordon this weekend at Homestead to present him with one of his signature Charlie 1 Horse cowboy hats. It was a gesture of appreciation and acknowledgement of everything Gordon has accomplished. But Petty understands better than most that the sport will move forward, just as it did when he stepped out of the car that sunny day in Atlanta. "No matter who you are, you're not strong enough to carry the whole load," Petty said. "He's been a strong leader all these years, but over a period of time, the next crowd comes along and kind of fades them all out. Over a period of time, you go away whether you want to or not." RELATED: Best No. 24 paint schemes Auspicious beginning Gordon won the series' Rookie of the Year title in 1993, competing for the honor against Bobby Labonte , Kenny Wallace and P.J. Jones. Two years later, he won his first championship. It was the era of Dale Earnhardt, the six-time champion chasing Petty's mark of seven titles while blazing new trails. He was "The Intimidator." He was NASCAR. Petty, Earnhardt and then there was Gordon . No one else was as dominant -- between 1995 and '99, Gordon won 47 races. He won Daytona. He won Indy. He won the Winston Million. Had he not come along? "Someone else would have taken that spot," Mike Helton, NASCAR Vice Chairman, said. "I don't know that anybody could have filled it, though. "There's a difference. It's like if the Atlantic Ocean went dry, somebody could figure out how to get water in it, but could they fill that whole ocean? "I think we were very fortunate for Jeff to appear when he did and do what he did along the way to keep our momentum going. It certainly added to the momentum that we had going in that era. We needed a Jeff Gordon and he arose. He came into the sport ... he could have chosen open-wheel racing ... and he would have been massively successful." Why was it Gordon ? Why not someone else who stepped up and helped carry the sport forward, who resonated with fans and sponsors? Helton doesn't know. "I know growing up there was a reason I became a big fan of John Wayne. And there were a lot of cowboys on television," he said. "I just think that speaks to Jeff's inclusiveness, and his capabilities extended beyond just being a very successful athlete as a race car driver." There have been issues from time to time, but nothing major, according to Helton, who added, "Of course we've had conversations in which he'd had to write checks afterward." Earnhardt's death in 2001, in the season-opening Daytona 500 , turned the sport upside down. Gordon was one of the few who could help stabilize it in an uncertain time. "I think the whole industry looked at Jeff to take Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s place when we lost Dale," said Helton. "The garage area needed a voice like we've had historically, whether it was Richard Petty or Darrell Waltrip, Dale Sr. ... He got pressure from the industry inside the garage to be that voice. "When that came, along with the championships that preceded that, he understood the need for a league or sanctioning body in order for the athlete to be successful. But he also had a good soapbox to stand on saying 'Look, we need our voice to be heard too.' And I think the respect worked both ways." RELATED: NASCAR Nation honors Gordon with #24ever 'Iron Man' of NASCAR Consecutive starts: 796. It's one more impressive record in Jeff Gordon 's body of work. He's never missed a start, and passed Ricky Rudd for the consecutive starts record earlier this year. Now, only one remains, one final attempt, one final opportunity. Because of the format for NASCAR's championship-determining Chase, Gordon doesn't have to win Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 . He has to finish ahead of only three challengers -- Kevin Harvick ( Stewart-Haas Racing ), Kyle Busch ( Joe Gibbs Racing ) and Martin Truex Jr . ( Furniture Row Racing ) to capture the title. He'll go out a winner regardless of where he finishes. Whether or not he goes out a champion has yet to be determined. Capturing the inaugural Brickyard 400 in '94 has always stood out as his most memorable moment. Until a recent Martinsville victory put him in the Championship 4 here at Homestead-Miami Speedway . The '98 season when he won 13 races, the fourth title in '01 with crew chief Robby Loomis after the departure of mentor Ray Evernham and the '95 crown that was won when he "was going against Earnhardt; that was huge," Gordon said earlier this week. The finality of the moment, though, carries much weight. "My final year, my final race, (wife) Ingrid and the kids," Gordon said. "Kids motivate you in a whole new way, and no matter what we're going to go out and be happy and celebrate. "But to do it as a champion, oh, my gosh, I just can't imagine anything that would be more emotional and more exciting and more gratifying than to look at my wife in the eyes and see that reaction from her when that race is over if we win it." MORE: Drivers offer favorite Gordon memories
Labor of love in restoring Jeff Gordon's car for sale
RELATED: Top moments in Gordon's career Well of course it was a fellow named Jeff Gordon who discovered a fellow named Jeff Gordon 's celebrated inaugural NASCAR winning car – the debutante drive of what would become a Hall of Fame racing career. And now -- after years of effort to historically and meticulously restore the former Busch Grand National car that Jeff Gordon first drove to a NASCAR Victory Lane in 1992, three times total -- the famed No. 1 Baby Ruth Ford will be showcased and available for purchase at the Barrett-Jackson auction Jan. 29 in Scottsdale, Arizona under the rather nondescript lot heading: "1094.1: 1992 T-Bird NASCAR." It has been both a labor of love and antiquity for the dozen or so involved in this project from the original guys who worked on the car like Billy Hess [original chassis builder], Keith Simmons [crew chief] and Ray Evernham -- efforts led and inspired by the retired NHRA star Darrell Gwynn, who will donate the money raised in the auction to his Darrell Gwynn Quality of Life Chapter of The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis. The Buoniconti Fund is the fundraising arm of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis -- the world's most comprehensive spinal cord injury research center located at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. This has not only been an interesting history lesson, but a true testament of care and inspiration. And it all started innocently enough with Gwynn's friend Gordon striking up a conversation at a car show in Daytona Beach years ago with a woman wearing a vintage Jeff Gordon Baby Ruth race car T-shirt. The woman surprised and confirmed to Gordon that her family actually owned the car, lived locally in Daytona Beach and after years of taking it to car shows, may be ready to sell it. "So no one in this garage knows at the time that Jeff Gordon 's car is right around the corner, how is that possible?" Gwynn recalled with a big smile. RELATED: See some of Gordon's iconic paint schemes After examining the car Gwynn made a deal to purchase it from the family. He transported it from Florida -- also Gwynn's home -- to Charlotte, where it sat for years. Hess and Simmons were able to confirm its authenticity with a couple of idiosyncratic details they were privy to knowing that the original car sported. Specifically, there was an extra roll bar under the dash. And they both helped immensely in carefully and authentically restoring the car for this month's auction. "So sure enough, Billy Hess goes outside his office and looks underneath the car and there's that bar,'' Gwynn explained. "I was so excited on the phone because I have 'the car' and my Jeff Gordon discovered it. I said, 'I have to have this in writing.' They got on a conference call and put together a certificate of authenticity and signed it. "This car has been sitting for four, five years and Jeff made that announcement he was going to retire, so I felt like it's time to do this,'' Gwynn said. "I have a lot of fans at Barrett-Jackson and this car is one of the assets for [my foundation]. … one of the assets we gave when we merged our organizations. "My superiors see this old beat-up stock car and I have to explain to them, 'You don't understand.' But they smile and say 'OK, Darrell. We believe in what you do.' "Why am I doing this?'' Gwynn offered with another huge smile. "I like to raise money for a great cause, number one. One of the stipulations when I partnered with the Miami Project was I'm going to have fun doing it. "And this is my idea of having fun." Gordon's stepfather John Bickford said he and Gordon are hoping to attend the auction for the sale of this car -- Gordon's appearance of course depends on his new work schedule as a NASCAR analyst for FOX Sports. But Bickford just looked at the finished product a week ago and was extremely impressed with the auction-ready result. "Darrell did his research and was adamant he made the right choices and it was only earlier this year that everyone took a "relief breath" when Keith Simmons took a look at the car [to authenticate],'' Bickford said. "Everyone was on pins and needles. Darrell called and said, 'it's the car.' I told him, 'you're one lucky dude, that's all I can say.' "Bickford recalled with a laugh. "I'm happy for Darrell. I think Darrell is an iconic guy in motorsports and I think when you're given a personal challenge and still find a way to give back to the world and try to make it better by what you've learned, you have to have respect for a guy like that. "Life isn't as easy for a guy like him as it is for you and I, but he gets up every day and works hard at it to give back to the people. It's hard to find the right things at the right time, and sometimes things fall in place." Bickford was especially appreciative of the great attention to exact detail on the car, noting the white letters on the tires because it was just before Goodyear used gold coloring and the bias-ply tires, for example. "What I like is Darrell really studied the pictures from Victory Lane,'' Bickford said. "They really worked hard on the car. … These guys found all the Victory Lane pictures and made sure the car looked like the Victory Lane shots because that's what they're representing." CAIN: My dinner with Gordon Another key part of this restoration and auction has been the reassurance and encouragement from the car's original owner, Bill Davis, who not only helped launch Gordon's NASCAR career but fielded the 2002 Daytona 500 -winning car for driver Ward Burton and who will be inducted in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame this March. "It's a real cool thing,'' said Davis, who sold his NASCAR assets in 2009 to focus on his successful trucking business. "The car basically got preserved and now restored to what it was and somebody will hopefully take it and love it and put in to collection." Davis especially appreciates being a critical part of the certain NASCAR Hall of Famer Gordon's career storyline. "I certainly look back at my entire NASCAR career with great fondness,'' Davis said. "It was a wonderful thing for us to get to do and have the success we did and make the friends we did.'' Seemingly from the very beginning, this whole project seems "meant to be" -- its work authenticated and verified by so many of the people originally involved in the car and what was to be, the start of much greatness. "The stars weren't aligned the last several years I was trying to make this happen,'' Gwynn said. "I didn't have room to store it, for example, so I stored it at Ray Evernham's shop, which is around the corner from Billy Hess' shop and Billy is the original chassis builder. "He started taking the car apart and then Jeff makes the announcement he is going to retire. So I said, we've got to accelerate this process. "I've always tried to do it around special times when I take a car to Barrett-Jackson. And this is certainly a special time." And certainly a special effort.
Jeff Gordon : The driver who brought NASCAR mainstream
The classic NASCAR film "Days of Thunder" was loosely based on the career of 13-time premier series victor Tim Richmond, who had earned the nickname "Hollywood." Given his comfort in the spotlight over the course of the past two decades, perhaps the nickname would also suit Jeff Gordon , who retired from full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition after falling just short in his bid for a historic fifth title on Sunday. Born a California boy, it was clear from the start of his career that Gordon was cut from a different cloth than the good ol' boys who had ruled NASCAR throughout its storied history. He was polished. He was refined. He was -- eventually, once mustache met razor -- well-groomed. And people took notice. Before long there were endorsements, seemingly more Gordon memorabilia lining the shelves than shelves themselves and, oh yeah, four titles in his first nine seasons, solidifying a Hall of Fame resume before he even hit age 30. And Gordon's influence on the actual racing part of the sport will be everlasting. Take a look at the final Sprint Cup standings . There are only two drivers in the top 25 who originally hail from North Carolina ( Dale Earnhardt Jr . and Austin Dillon ), NASCAR's original talent pool hot bed. Many factors led to this, but Gordon's All-American appeal, charm and charisma helped pave the way -- even while playing the foil to Dale Earnhardt -- opening up NASCAR to a mainstream audience, flooding stands and couches in front of non-flat-screened TV sets with an audience that stretched from coast to coast, border to border. An audience that tuned in to see Gordon become the first -- and to date, only -- race car driver host one of America's most notable television programs, NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Jeff Gordon 's monologue from a 2003 episode of NBC's "Saturday Night Live." "I asked ( Gordon ) recently, a while back, about what made you go on 'Saturday Night Live,' what made you want to do that," NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway . "Number 1, he said, 'Well, they asked me.' And I said, 'Well, OK.' But he said, 'Look, I felt comfortable doing a lot of things that were not mainstream for a NASCAR driver.' "And he was smart about it. He knew that that could separate him from other drivers and he was good at it." Gordon's SNL appearance on Jan. 11, 2003, was a tipping point of bringing NASCAR to the masses, an unquestionable testament to the Hendrick Motorsports driver's popularity and wide-ranging allure. Gordon got to "beat up" a fake Gary Busey while hosting "SNL." It's the crowning achievement in Gordon's on-screen roles, a list that includes 27 appearances on "Live!" (with Regis/Kathie Lee/Kelly/Michael), including 11 guest hosting gigs. He's also appeared in "Spin City", "Arli$$", "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", "The Drew Carey Show", "Looney Tunes: Back in Action", "Taxi", "Herbie Fully Loaded", "Sesame Street", "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition", "Top Gear", "The Simpsons", "Jeopardy" and even "Cars 2" -- as the appropriately named character " Jeff Gorvette." That curriculum vitae alone -- which is pared down; check out his entire IMDb page -- shows Gordon's star power across generations of fans and television watchers. Gordon also got to play a fighter pilot. Ultimately, with Gordon walking away on such a high note from the sport he's gotten so much out of, NASCAR has reaped the benefits of his contributions. Millions of NASCAR fans can thank Jeff Gordon for opening their eyes to the sport. "He's one of those guys, I always look back at drivers that take out a lot less than they put in," France said. "He's one of those guys that has put in a lot to grow the sport. And other drivers should think about that a little bit. Because he's really a model in that respect. "I have a lot of respect for Jeff Gordon ."
Cain: My dinner with Jeff Gordon in 1992
RELATED: Gordon's teammates plan tribute " Final 24 paint scheme My first meeting with Jeff Gordon came in Atlanta in 1992, two nights before what would be a sport-changing maiden NASCAR Winston Cup Series start for the then 20-year-old. I remember he was dressed casually in jeans and yes, sported "that" mustache. I met him as part of a larger group of friends in a bustling Atlanta hotel lobby. He was without a single "handler" and since he knew a couple people in our group, wondered if he could tag along with us. The plan was to do a group dinner then later stop by a sports bar to watch the big fight between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe. The young Gordon looked as much like a fan as a driver. You'd never know he competed in NASCAR's Grand National division. Even less apparent was that he would be making his first big Cup start that weekend, except for the occasional, "Hey Jeff ," which he acknowledged in a downplayed manner. I still have a large button with a photo of Jeff and a friend of mine after we jokingly convinced the staff at Benihana's that night it was Gordon's birthday. It wasn't, but we got free dessert and the funny button. I had reported on a lot of IMSA sports car racing leading into this assignment for the Tampa Tribune , but this was my first big Cup race, too. Our primary racing beat writer, Herb Branham, was focusing his weekend coverage on "the big story" -- Richard Petty's last start. I was to handle the more routine race story topped by the championship. Looking back at it, I discovered that I never even mentioned Gordon in that story. He crashed and finished 31st. To be perfectly honest, my background was primarily stick-and-ball and I had no idea who Gordon was, especially compared to NASCAR's bigger names like Petty, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki, who won the title that weekend. Just to have a chance at this first big-time racing opportunity, I had to make myself valuable all around to the newspaper. So I offered to stop in Atlanta earlier in the week for a lengthy and candid interview with the Tampa Bay Lightning's big news, a woman goalie, Manon Rheaume. Manon was great. But NASCAR was better and 22 years later, I'm still here. I remember congratulating Gordon the day after our dinner on his "best of second round qualifying," but honestly had no idea of the fabulous racing legend this modest, fun, personable young man would become. He eventually lost the mustache, but never the mojo. RELATED: Photos of Gordon through the years Gordon is the first major NASCAR champion that I have covered from the very beginning to the very end, which comes with his retirement this weekend after the 2015 season finale in Homestead, Florida -- where he stands an impressive 1-in-4 chance to win a fifth title. And while Gordon has accomplished so much, transformed the sport and truly deserves the opportunity to possibly leave as a champion, it will feel very odd to me -- and to so many -- to say goodbye now. Gordon was the first NASCAR driver I had any lengthy conversation with or wrote any substantial stories about. Considering that now, after his four championships and 93 victories, it is something I will treasure as a reporter. And truly it started with what a down-to-earth person I have always considered Gordon to be. I'm fortunate to say I was there for so many of Gordon's firsts -- the Brickyards, the Daytona 500 s, the championships ... and the fabulous head-to-heads with Dale Earnhardt. RELATED: Gordon's top 24 NASCAR moments I still have the February 1995 edition of "Beckett Racing Monthly" magazine with Gordon's first cover photo and my story on him featured inside. I honestly hadn't read it in more than 10-15 years. The headline is "Flash Gordon " and talks about the amazing statistics he had already posted only two full seasons into what is now surely a Hall of Fame career. He was already truly one of the most popular drivers on the circuit -- later that very year winning his first Cup title -- and I remember his public relations team wanting me to send a letter in advance with a list of potential questions. I didn't. And Gordon was still spectacular. As impressive as his success on track had already been -- the 1993 Rookie of the Year, a win in his first Gatorade Twin 125, and then in the Coca-Cola 600 and the inaugural 1994 Brickyard 400 -- Gordon was genuinely humbled and amazed at the fan reaction in my story. "When I get a second to sit down, which isn't very often, I think back to when I got a chance to meet Charles Barkley or Chris Webber,'' Gordon said in the article. "That was a big thrill for me and they weren't rude, they were really nice. That made a big impact on me and I try to put myself in that same position. If I have an extra second, I always try to give it to the fans, especially the kids.'' And he always has. This weekend in particular, Gordon will be honored, acknowledged, remembered and cheered for more than two decades of transforming this sport on track and off it. As he said in that 1994 article, "I'm just a race car driver looking to make a living.'' And so he has. So, well done.