Matt Dillner leads you through the NNS garage as they prepare for Final Practice giving you an inside look at your favorite drivers preparing for the Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300.
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
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 ."
As Jeff Gordon 's full-time Sprint Cup Series career comes to a close on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway , tributes have been pouring in for the Hendrick Motorsports driver via #24Ever. Here are some of the best across NASCAR Nation. It's been great racing with you, and learning from you. Great competitor and exceptional ambassador for @NASCAR . pic.twitter.com/KMmdAiVIWn — Dale Earnhardt Jr . (@DaleJr) November 22, 2015 U were my idol growing up. Never did I think I’d race against u for wins. Congrats on a great career @JeffGordonWeb pic.twitter.com/ysKMzOfsaj — Joey Logano (@joeylogano) November 22, 2015 Thank you for EVERYTHING @jeffgordonweb . It's hard to believe this is it... Get it done bro! #24ever pic.twitter.com/ztrH2d2T2Y — Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) November 22, 2015 #24ever pic.twitter.com/L2Bi8bsA0n — Danica Patrick (@DanicaPatrick) November 22, 2015 I'm excited to watch @JeffGordonWeb 's last thrilling ride tomorrow. He’s a great friend to me and to the @ClintonFdn . Best of luck #Team24 ! — Bill Clinton (@billclinton) November 21, 2015 Jeffrey (left) handmade both of these guitars & will make 24 total. @JeffGordonWeb getting one on the right! #24Ever pic.twitter.com/sGk8jGocqa — NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 21, 2015 93 WINS. 1 FINAL RIDE. Thanks for the memories, @JeffGordonWeb ! #24EVER https://t.co/YQoVbXbxT1 — NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 20, 2015 . @JeffGordonWeb CAN do it all! @DarylMotte looks back on the 4-time champ's seat swap w/ @jpmontoya . #NASCAR #24Ever https://t.co/2tJ4fXdYUF — AtTheBuzzer (@TheBuzzerOnFOX) November 21, 2015 Richard Petty was HONORED to THANK @JeffGordonWeb for his contributions to the sport. #24Ever pic.twitter.com/YPaNgZMoBw — RPMotorsports (@RPMotorsports) November 21, 2015 The 2️⃣4️⃣ crew, past and present. #24ever pic.twitter.com/wWsOphz0Ix — #TheChase (@NASCAR) November 21, 2015 What an awesome tribute to @JeffGordonWeb by @HomesteadMiami ! #24ever pic.twitter.com/62LLu9fvN9 — Axalta Racing (@AxaltaRacing) November 20, 2015 Not taking our time on the track with @JeffGordonWeb for granted this weekend. #Grateful #24ever pic.twitter.com/BQL1acsuw2 — Team Lowe's Racing (@LowesRacing) November 20, 2015 . @JeffGordonWeb still owes Eldora $10.... #24Ever (Thanks to the Baltes & Schmitmeyer families for finding this.) pic.twitter.com/xjJ5ev2CcV — Eldora Speedway (@EldoraSpeedway) November 20, 2015 I have been a 24 fan since I was a kid, so it's surreal to race against him, and now-to be in his last race. #24ever https://t.co/4vsN5iC8XT — Danica Patrick (@DanicaPatrick) November 19, 2015 If this campaign was good enough for D. Jeter, then it sure as hell is good enough for Jeff Gordon . #24ever #nascar pic.twitter.com/hZQwQ0512c — nascarcasm (@nascarcasm) November 19, 2015 They. Are. BACK! @JimmieJohnson ’s yellow 48’s take the track once again this weekend to celebrate #24ever . pic.twitter.com/1iQOlrqspn — Team Lowe's Racing (@LowesRacing) November 17, 2015 . @JeffGordonWeb 's @USACNation racing days remembered in tribute video. #NASCAR #24ever https://t.co/4rKIGjrLn0 — FOX SPORTS: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) November 16, 2015 One race left. Thank you, Jeff . We'll see you in the Hall. #24ever https://t.co/WDFnKCFKod — Richmond Raceway (@RIRInsider) November 16, 2015 23 years of greatness in ☝️ place. Do yourself a favor and check it out: https://t.co/WzwT6FrXIW #24ever pic.twitter.com/YNAxM9l7JL — #TheChase (@NASCAR) November 15, 2015
RELATED: Full coverage of Gordon's last ride Jeff Gordon 's last ride resulted in a sixth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway and he finished third in the final standings for 2015. Here is a look at where the legendary driver stacks up all time.
Editor's note: Every Friday, "Tweets You Might Have Missed" will present eight of the best NASCAR-related tweets from the week. 1. I like a lil #sneakattack #vacation #friendsgiving pic.twitter.com/41HQcmqrgT — Amy Reimann (@Amy_Reimann) November 24, 2015 2. After the race little dude says "I believed that we would win... And I believe we'll get a baby sister annnnnd a brother too!!!" — DeLana Harvick (@DeLanaHarvick) November 23, 2015 3. Happy Thanksgiving! Have a great day with family and friends. Tanner and I checking out the property #thankful pic.twitter.com/NNxIm1ub5j — Kasey Kahne (@kaseykahne) November 26, 2015 4. Note to self: You're not 21, please use better judgement in the future. — Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) November 23, 2015 5. #Cannonball pic.twitter.com/mHn78ZgAiX — Dale Earnhardt Jr . (@DaleJr) November 23, 2015 6. Two amazing blessings right here, both we had to fight hard for but when the time was right God gave them to us pic.twitter.com/lIZTywim0e — Samantha Busch (@SamanthaBusch) November 23, 2015 7. Hey @JimmieJohnson I hear ya #24ever pic.twitter.com/3591OlIqBm — Ricky Stenhouse Jr . (@StenhouseJr) November 23, 2015 8. An amazing experience seeing @JeffGordonWeb 's final @NASCAR race. Congratulations to you, Jeff , on an amazing career pic.twitter.com/NPuNavzRRX — Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) November 23, 2015 FAN TWEET OF THE WEEK: Mom didn't want me to know about the @NASCAR tickets ahead of time, but she wanted me to pick out my own seats at @CLTMotorSpdwy — Kelli Scoggins (@kelliscoggins) November 27, 2015
Jeff Gordon gets stuck without a chair at the 2001 Awards Ceremony causing an awkward moment for the 2001 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion.
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.
RELATED: Full coverage of Gordon's last ride Below is a numbers breakdown of Jeff Gordon 's stats in his four championship seasons, plus 2015.