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From the feathers to the wins, driver has left lasting impression Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A young Jeff Gordon preferred to let his No. 24 car do the talking for him. Consequently, he didn't have to tell his '90s crew when he was ready to take the checkered. Instead, the crew interpreted the two simple signs. First, Gordon would grow quiet on the radio, fading to eventual silence. The iconic No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet whirled around the track, providing plenty of nonverbal commentary with its vibrant, rainbow-colored exterior. And when Gordon passed by his pit box seconds later, one final action let his crew know it was winning time. “The story was, he had the feathers on his helmet, and when he would get really focused, he would lean over and you could see the feathers through the window net,” No. 5/24 Team Manager Brian Whitesell recalled. “And you knew he was getting serious. So you would always joke about ‘OK, we’re seeing the feathers, it’s about to get on now.’” Gordon’s competitive nature and intensity in the car are two of the many qualities that Whitesell and other Hendrick Motorsports shop employees will miss when Gordon retires from full-time competition in 2016. Many No. 5/24 shop employees have called the sprawling campus of Hendrick Motorsports “home” for over 20 years, spending their days laboring Gordon's race cars upon the spotless white floors of the shop. And each of these veterans can recount stories about a young Gordon from a different era of racing. “He’s changed the perception of the sport by his actions and by what he’s done,” Whitesell said while sitting in his office overlooking the No. 5/24 shop of Gordon and teammate Kasey Kahne. “I’m sure there will be stories 10 years from now on what this change manifested and what he’s able to do in his new role.” Whitesell recalls Gordon’s career with fondness and familiarity -- unsurprising, as he’s been with the No. 24 driver from the very beginning. The young engineer took a job with Hendrick Motorsports back in 1992 as the initial truck driver for the newly minted No. 24 team. Whitesell later served as Gordon’s engineer and transitory crew chief after Ray Evernham left the team midway through the 1999 Cup season. The pair won two back-to-back races in 1999 -- at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway -- following Evernham's departure. “Knew he was a very special, talented driver,” Whitesell said of his first impression of Gordon. “That’s what we knew. Now where it went from there, no one knew because a lot of talented drivers come in the series and for one reason or another, they don’t make it. “The whole combination of (team owner) Mr. (Rick) Hendrick and it ended up being Ray and Jeff -- the whole thing worked very well and obviously took off.” For the shop workers, co-owner Gordon's similarities to Hendrick help make the No. 24 driver an incredible leader. “He’s like a miniature Rick,” said No. 5/24 Mechanic Darrell McDonald, who took brief break from the shop's Daytona 500 preparations to offer his commentary on Gordon. Moments later, the 24-year shop veteran found the perfect analogy: “… He brings this calm to everybody. He’s the first one to clap; he’s a good motivator. "It’s like when you have a meeting with Rick, when he’s done…man, if I was in the military, we’d be taking over countries.” So when their long-time fearless leader Gordon told his devoted army on Jan. 22 that he wouldn’t be competing full-time after 2016, it was a tough pill to swallow for the shop members. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” said No. 5/24 shop foreman Steve Hlinak, who has been with the team since 1998. “When you see a 24 on the track and they don’t say Jeff Gordon, it’s going to be weird.” Gordon caught Hlinak’s eye even before he joined the Hendrick Motorsports family. He remembers watching Gordon nab his record-setting pole at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1995 in a fashion that was simply extraordinary. “That’s one of my favorite memories of Jeff in years past,” Hlinak said. “I wasn’t even working on that team and it jacked me up. When he got sideways and got the pole, it was incredible. His dominance at Indy is pretty spectacular.” Gordon’s supremacy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is universally celebrated around the shop -- last season, the shop's non-traveling employees even participated in their own brick-kissing ceremony on the floors of the 5/24 shop following Gordon's impressive Brickyard 400 victory. Naturally, it’s also the track where Whitesell immediately pinpoints his favorite memory with the No. 24 driver. “The favorite memory was just that inaugural Brickyard ,” Whitesell said, referring to Gordon’s renowned win in 1994. “It’s just hard to beat that. As we prepared for that race and did everything, it was just so special. And how well he drove that day. The determination of him doing that -- it was a huge accomplishment for him and the team.” Less than a year after that historic Brickyard 400 victory, Gordon was winning races like the shop employees had never seen before and bringing an unfamiliar feeling to the shop; a championship fever. “That was the first championship we ever had,” McDonald said, referring to Gordon’s first Cup title in 1995. “Before him and Terry (Labonte) came along, we won one race a year. “There are a lot of drivers that can win, but never win a championship. So it was great to see him put the whole year together as a driver and win the championship (in 1995). That’s basically what you’re here for.” • • • While legendary on the track, to these dedicated shop members, Gordon isn’t just a talented driver who has stacked their fingers with championship rings. He is someone they respect and care for both on and off the race track because of his character. “At a very young age, he knew he had a lot of people depending on him," McDonald explained. "This company depended on him to win. And he went out and performed. So I feel like that (first) year showed his maturity at such a young age and then (he) won a championship. “It was a tough era back then … let’s face it, you can only do so much for him as a crew chief, pit crew -- he’s got to drive that race car. Once you put them tires on there and put that thing full of fuel, it’s up to him.” But the task of hoisting the 2015 Sprint Cup trophy at the end of the year is not one that solely rests on Gordon's shoulders -- everyone in the 5/24 shop has a fire lit under their bellies and is ready for battle on the race track. “To me, it inspires us to do even better,” Hlinak said, referring to Gordon’s announcement. “A last chance to get him that championship here.” “At the end of this year, we just want to say, ‘You know what? We’ve done all we can do.” McDonald said. “…That’s all we want to do right now -- we’re not even thinking about when he’s done. We’ve got this year to race. We’re not done yet.” And after watching him race last season, they know that Gordon will do all he can to make that #DriveforFive championship dream a reality. “I think my favorite season was last year actually,” Hlinak said. “He showed his youthfulness now. We talked about showing his maturity back then, but now he’s showing his personality and his feelings. He’s still scrappy and youthful. He can get it done.” “Little of a redneck side last year,” McDonald added. “Yeah…” Hlinak said with a slight smile and a wink. “Everyone in this building has got his back.” But after the 2015 season is in the books, don’t use the r-word in regards to Gordon around these veteran shop members. Because to them, he’ll still be just as big a part of the Hendrick Motorsports team. “He’s not going to live in a some trailer park, living in a retirement home down in Florida,” McDonald said. “He’s not retiring, he’s just changing obligations.” "Changing obligations" will put Gordon in a managerial role of Hendrick Motorsports. In this facet, he'll still be heavily involved with the organization, closely supervising his replacement in the No. 24 car: Chase Elliott. "I see a lot of Jeff (in Elliott), I really do," McDonald said. "But I think Jeff’s going to be good for him because he’s going to let him know that he’s got to be Chase. He can’t be Jeff Gordon. He may be better than Jeff. He may win a lot of races, may win a lot of championships, we still don’t know yet. But Jeff will tell him to be him -- ‘Don’t worry about my stuff, you just go out there and do what you’re supposed to do.’" • • • After a few more minutes of conversation, these shop employees are back to work on the floor, immediately busying themselves with Daytona 500 preparations. With a championship to win and a new driver sitting in the wings, breaks are few and far between around here. But it's that devoted mindset that has made them so successful in the past and will keep them whistling and working inside the gray and white walls of the championship-winning shop for years and years to come. “I’m looking for my second (Rolex) watch,” said McDonald with a grin, referring to the gift Hendrick gives to employees on their 20-year anniversaries. “I’m hoping it’s the gold.” FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule