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
Ben Rhodes: Chasing dreams on-track and on-camera
Ask some of the people who work most closely with Ben Rhodes about him and you'll get the same sense -- that the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rookie isn't an ordinary 19-year-old. Ask his crew chief. "I've known this kid since he was 15 years old and he was always very mature, very respectful and acts older than he is," Kevin Bellicourt says. "I mean, the way he has shown maturity in the race car and everything around that, I do forget that he is 19 years old." Ask the sports director who co-hosts Rhodes' TV show -- yes, his own TV show -- in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. "I'll look at him sometimes and I'll just be like, 'Look, stop it. Just be a kid.' But he's not," Kent Spencer says. "He's definitely wise beyond his years." The wisdom has served Rhodes well in all facets of his budding NASCAR career, which carried him to the K&N Pro Series East championship in 2014 and a stint with the NASCAR Next youth initiative that identifies the sport's up-and-coming stars. The next step is a full-season campaign this year with powerhouse ThorSport Racing in the Truck Series, which makes its next stop Friday night at Kansas Speedway . Even in casual conversation, Rhodes' composure comes through in a calm that belies his age, less than one year removed from receiving a high school diploma. It's a collected nature that helps him feel just as at home in front of a TV camera's lens as he does behind the wheel. Rhodes doesn't have to balance a racing career with schoolwork any more, but his focus is far from singular. "It's full-time racing now, and it's full-time everything that has to do with racing, not just being on the track or working on the cars, but sponsors, events, fans -- which is cool," Rhodes says. "I really like that aspect of it. You can't be on the track without that." The story of how Rhodes came to be on the track isn't unlike the tale of other youngsters with a dream and a heavy right foot. But it's the unique wrinkles of his narrative that make Rhodes' story ready for prime time. Early beginnings Around their home state, where the term "racing" is most commonly associated with Thoroughbreds, it's fitting that Rhodes' career choice was galvanized by figuratively getting back on the horse. Rhodes had barely entered grade school when the itch for speed struck him. He recalls helping his older brother, Chris, try to emulate his father's practice of removing the governor from their go-karts, much to their mother's dismay. The recreational -- and occasionally unrestricted -- karting soon led to competition. "We were having a blast around the house," Rhodes says, "but when we hit the race track, it didn't really click at first and it took awhile before I got in a wreck to figure it out." Rhodes recalls crashing his first time out -- the leader coming around to lap him, clipping one of his back wheels and landing on top of his kart. The wreck naturally made him gun-shy, but it took another altercation to set his course toward making racing a lifelong pursuit. Rhodes' family vividly recalls that incident at the Clark County, Indiana, 4-H Fairgrounds, where the 7-year-old driver was on the receiving end of an intentional wreck for the first time. His family worked to repair his kart while the youngster seethed, intent on retaliation. But as Rhodes began to furiously charge back through the pack, something changed in his demeanor. "Once I passed the other guy, I didn't even think about wanting revenge or whatever, I just started having a blast," Rhodes says. "Passing cars was a lot more fun than getting passed, and that's when it all started clicking for me. We started working on set-ups and had just an awesome time doing it. It was an awesome family experience." Into NASCAR Those first forays led to progression and an eventual place in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at age 16. After a partial first season, his first full campaign in 2014 netted a remarkable five victories and six pole positions, with Bellicourt serving as his car chief. The performance drew the interest of JR Motorsports, which fielded Rhodes in a 10-race slate in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2015. After a seventh-place series debut at Iowa Speedway in May, Rhodes endured largely uneven results in the JRM No. 88, despite help from the team's fleet of Sprint Cup drivers -- Dale Earnhardt Jr ., Kevin Harvick , Chase Elliott and Regan Smith . "I learned so much from them, but the problem is it was hard to apply it," Rhodes says of his sporadic schedule. "You have to be in the car feeling it. I had a month between times (in the car) more than once before I could actually feel what they were talking about or actually apply it. All the momentum that you had was lost. It was just really hard for me to get adjusted to and just hard to keep the learning going, but the jump, I felt like if I ran the whole season, the jump maybe wouldn't have been that bad." An offseason to regroup also led to a new opportunity, as one of the newest faces at ThorSport Racing, a championship-caliber team with an evolving driver roster. In the offseason, Rhodes joined two-time Truck Series champ Matt Crafton , second-year driver Cameron Hayley and fellow rookie Rico Abreu under the watch of team owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson. The team's drivers have perennially lauded the resources that the Thorsons provide to compete at a high level. Rhodes found this out early on, when they sought his input to hire a crew chief for his No. 41 Toyota. He immediately thought of Bellicourt, who had just finished helping William Byron as crew chief for his K&N East championship run in 2015. In some respects, the job was a tougher sell than most, requiring Bellicourt to move from North Carolina to within reach of ThorSport's Sandusky, Ohio, shop. But it was also a commitment for his wife, his 11-month-old daughter and the baby the couple are expecting in early June. But the opportunity to move from the regional and touring level to a NASCAR national series was too good to pass up. After taking the leap, the driver-crew chief reunion went seamlessly. "The communication is back to where it was and it's like we never even left off," Rhodes says. "I remember the first time that he was up at ThorSport and I was there and we were having such a good time. None of the guys up there had seen us run before or work together, so when we came up there, they were like, 'We've got a feeling that you just brought your best friend in to work on these race cars.' That was kind of cool that we hit it off right away once again." Says Bellicourt: "We just have a good time. I understand what he's saying when he's talking about the truck, and he understands when I'm trying to make a point with him. His understanding of the race car has just come a long way since I first met him when he was 15. He understands that a lot, and all the set-up stuff. That just helps a lot, too, with the driver having that knowledge. We've just been able to roll with it so far this season." Rolling with it has meant gradual gains in the early stages of the year, but one accomplishment stands out -- winning the pole position last month at Martinsville Speedway . Though a late-race wreck saddled Rhodes with a midpack 16th-place result, the speed shown in qualifying and out front for 42 laps made a solid impression. "It felt really good to get the pole because it validates what we know that we have," Rhodes says. "We're trying to show others what my crew chief and I know. We have an awesome relationship and we know how to set up the race cars, we know how to get speed, it's just a matter of getting the experience together now. It just validates that." The fact that Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch was among the competitive field in qualifying that day didn't hurt the team's confidence, Bellicourt says. "You look at that and say there's no reason we can't run with any of these guys," Bellicourt says. "Now Ben knows it. We knew it before, but you always want to make it happen and then you just get that extra confidence. I know it, the guys know it, Ben knows it, and hopefully now everybody else sees what we're capable of. "We're looking to continue to do more of that to show that it wasn't just a flash-in-the-pan, one-time thing. We're going to try to do it at Kansas again." On the mic Rhodes has visions of keeping his racing aspirations going, climbing the ladder, chasing victories. But if his NASCAR dream somehow ended tomorrow, he has an entertaining backup plan -- in television. The 19-year-old is in his fifth season as co-host of "On Track with Ben Rhodes ," a 30-minute weekly show that chronicles his racing career and allows him to meet and interview personalities in the Louisville area. Kent Spencer -- the sports director at WHAS-11, an ABC affiliate in Louisville -- has served as the show's other co-host since its inception. "I'd met Ben before, but in kind of a different realm," Spencer says. "He was a young man trying to come up, went to a local high school, trying to make it in NASCAR, so we interviewed a few times there. This was obviously a different beast. He and I have a really good rapport together, we like to be around each other, so we kind of knew early on that this was going to work." The experience has allowed Rhodes to interact with community leaders from all walks of life. This season, Rhodes and Spencer have taken their show on the road, spending time with charitable organizations, returning to Holy Cross High School (the driver's alma mater), and paying visits to Churchill Downs, site of Saturday's 142nd Kentucky Derby. Rhodes' comfort on camera has grown not only in his hometown, but also during media sessions in the garage on race weekends. "I get to see and build new relationships with people, but it's also trained me to talk to the media and how to talk on camera," he says. "Before the show, I was really, really bad. Now that I've done the show for a couple seasons, I've done a lot better and it makes the job at the race track a lot easier for me." Even Bellicourt has noticed. "You give that kid a microphone and you're going to have to rip it out of his hand before he quits talking," he says with a laugh. "He's very outgoing and does a good job with that. He's kind of a total-package guy. He's got the marketing side, he's really good in front of the camera and obviously has performed on the race track great, so he's got an enormous amount of talent." It all circles back to the versatility and composure that extends beyond Rhodes' years. "I got that feeling from him back when he was 17," Spencer says. "You could definitely tell he's not a normal high school junior, not a normal high school senior. It's just the way he goes about things and the way he can communicate, and I think a large part of that is because the way that his mom and dad make him do a lot on his own. "If you want this dream, it's not easy. You're going to have to work for it. Every week, we get done taping the show and Ben helps tear down the set. He does a lot setting up his own schedule. He's out there and he's doing it, getting the job done, but there's a lot of times where it just blows me away." Several drivers with successful NASCAR credentials have made smooth transitions to the broadcasting booth for second careers after their driving days are done. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon added his name to the list this season, joining FOX Sports for its coverage of the sport. Rhodes says he'd love to see a similar trajectory for his career, but right now he's one-upping it -- by taking on both jobs at once. "Hopefully my racing career goes on for a long time and I can build up a great reputation and go out on TV broadcasting," he says. "I think it's really cool that drivers do that once they're done, and they're able to go up in the broadcast booth and shine new light on the subject and able to give fans kind of the inside scoop on things. As things change and progress, maybe some of the other broadcasters might not be aware of it. "New drivers like Jeff Gordon and the guys that are fresh out of the race car can show them and talk about what's changing in the sport. I think that's really cool that drivers can do that." Spoken like a kid who is wise beyond his years.
Who is eligible for Sprint All-Star Race?
The Sprint All-Star Race is scheduled for May 21 at 7 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Charlotte Motor Speedway , and drivers can qualify in a variety of ways. Drivers who won a race in 2015 or so far in 2016 are in the event. So, too, are former premier series champions and former All-Star Race winners. Three drivers will be added to the field by winning one of three Sprint Showdown segments, and the Sprint Fan Vote will also add a driver into the field. If there aren't a minimum of 20 cars in the field by that point, the next highest vote-getter in the Sprint Fan Vote would be added to the field. Below is a list of drivers who meet the above criteria, according to NASCAR. Editor's note: Jeff Gordon is qualified for the event, according to NASCAR. He retired from full-time competition following the 2015 season.
As executive producer, Dale Jr. excited about new series
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- When Dale Earnhardt Jr . previewed the first installment of the upcoming three-part series "NASCAR: The Rise of American Speed," the Hendrick Motorsports driver said he was amazed at what he witnessed. "The first part I watched like a kid at Christmas," the Hendrick Motorsports driver said Tuesday, adding that he kept thinking, "This is cool; I love what I'm seeing. I didn't know it was like this; this is awesome." Earnhardt is an executive producer for the series, which debuts this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CMT. "You know about Red Byron (NASCAR's first premier series champion) and guys like that and what they've done but you've never actually had a window into what they might have been like," he said. "So that was really, really neat. "Watching that first episode, it's completely different from watching the other two. The other two I was there, or I remember it as a kid. You immediately go to sort of picking it apart and (asking) does it live up to the standard?" The series (episodes 2 and 3 will air on consecutive Sundays, May 15 and May 22) uses archival footage as well as reenactments and interviews to document the history of NASCAR from its beginning to modern day. Among those contributing on-air to the project were stars such as Jeff Gordon , Kevin Harvick , Tony Stewart and Darrell Waltrip. NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France and Lesa France Kennedy, Chief Executive Officer of International Speedway Corp., provide additional insights. NASCAR founder William Henry Getty France was their grandfather, Bill France Jr. their father. Episode 1 details stock car racing's rough, raw beginnings and the senior France's desire to pursue his dream of bringing acceptability and professionalism to the sport. Episode 2 features the continued rise of the sport and France's many battles to bring NASCAR to mainstream America. Episode 3 begins with the '79 Daytona 500 , a watershed moment for NASCAR, and focuses heavily on the career of France's son, Bill Jr., and seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt before closing with where NASCAR sits in today's sports landscape. But it was that first episode that Earnhardt Jr. said, "Intrigues me the most. "Because I wasn't there and didn't know much about that time," he said. "You know people's names and you match that name with an accomplishment. But you never really knew their personalities much. "I believe in this kind of film you're able to see maybe what this guy's attitude or personality was like. You see when Big Bill is trying to form NASCAR, some of the drivers are kind of grinding against the gears and pushing back a little bit. "We really don't know a lot about that and there aren't a lot of stories telling that part of it, that side of it. So that was real interesting."
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.
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.
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 ."