Gordon's love for Charlotte lasting, 22 years after first win
Photo credit: Charlotte Motor Speedway CONCORD, N.C. – With its close proximity to race shops, Charlotte Motor Speedway is known as the home track for most of the NASCAR community. But Tuesday's gathering at the 1.5-mile speedway had more of a tourist feel, as fans hailed from places near and far. There was the man from Bakersfield, California, – "Harvick country," he states proudly – the fan from Switzerland, the Canadian couple and everyone in between. They wore different numbers on their shirts and spoke with different accents, but they were all there to see one man. Mr. Jeff Gordon . The FOX Sports analyst and four-time NASCAR champion helped celebrate the 10 Days of NASCAR Thunder leading up to Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) by taking photos with 100 Charlotte ticketholders. Despite Gordon's retirement following his championship run last season, the fandom was as feverous as ever, as each visitor itched to exchange a few words with the former No. 24 driver. "It's slightly different (now) because many of them say a lot of the same things, 'I wish you were out there,' (or) 'I miss you being out there,'" Gordon said of the fans. "But I'm getting a lot of great comments about being up in the booth, so it's nice. I'm enjoying myself, so I think it comes across in the broadcast and interacting with the fans, I get to hear that from them as well." Gordon stood on the roof of Champion's Pavilion with the fans, giving the group a birds-eye view of the quad oval. The track is impressive; a feeling Gordon reciprocates, as he recalls the first time he laid eyes on it. "I think it doesn't mean the same to everybody," Gordon said, "but for me, the very first time I ever came to North Carolina … when I drove by this facility, I was blown away. I'd seen Indianapolis Motor Speedway , but beyond that, I'd never seen anything that looked like this. Just the appearance of it put me in awe." Gordon found success at Charlotte early in his career, earning a runner-up result in his first race at the North Carolina track in 1993. And on Sunday, he'll broadcast his first Coca-Cola 600 ; 22 years after he earned his first-ever win in the Cup Series in the '94 running of the 600-mile event. RELATED: See all the winners of the longest race in NASCAR But Gordon's love affair with Charlotte began before the Victory Lane celebration. "When I drove a stock car here for the first time, I just fell in love with it," Gordon said. "I love the way the track flows, the banking, the grip level, bumps and everything that comes along with it. And of course, winning my first race, having it happen in the 600." The longest race on the Cup circuit, the Coca-Cola 600 has long been revered as one of NASCAR's biggest races – one of the sport's "Majors," as Gordon says. "Daytona, here, Brickyard, maybe a Southern 500, some would also say Talladega." Gordon said, rattling off a list of stock car racing's biggest events. "But this is a big, big deal to win this race. To me, it's probably second or third ranking in our series as far as most prestigious events." Winning the coveted Coca-Cola 600 trophy is no easy feat – the man who has won three of those races can tell you that. With the cars being more advanced today and eliminating some of the physical aspect, Gordon emphasizes the continued need for mental toughness. "You're talking about a minimum of four hours being in the car," Gordon said. "Pit crews, crew chiefs, everyone's on edge, not just the drivers … (They're) pushing the limits every single lap, which is not the way it used to be. You used to pace yourself and be able to manage the tires and your car and you could still be competitive at the end of the day – if you were in one piece. "That's not the case anymore – it's just all out. So, that mentally drains you by pushing that hard for that period of time." RELATED: Gordon embraces new career with 'contagious' energy The task of taming a 600-mile monster is daunting, especially for younger drivers. Gordon's No. 24 replacement Chase Elliott prepares to make his second Coca-Cola 600 start. Elliott, now in his rookie season, started 28th and finished 18th in the 2015 Coca-Cola 600 , then driving the No. 25 for Hendrick Motorsports . As for any advice from the former boss of the No. 24? Gordon said his 20-year-old successor doesn't need it. "I haven't had to give him much advice on the race track," Gordon said. "He's a natural … He gets better every weekend. "I'm excited for that 24 team. I had to defend a lot with fans being upset about them keeping the No. 24 and I said, 'Just wait, just wait, I think you're going to be proud of the results.' And now, I'm starting to see everybody's now saying, 'What a great replacement for the 24!' " Gordon's statement was validated by fans sporting Elliott-themed shirts earlier, with one young boy – who will likely grow up knowing Elliott, rather than Gordon , as the No. 24 driver -- wearing a blue NAPA hat. Gordon loves it. "Listen, I love seeing the sport grow," he said. "I'm still heavily involved in the sport, not just from the FOX side, but from Hendrick Motorsports . And I think the sport is amazing right now. The racing is as good as it's ever been. We have some great young talents. Not to mention veterans that are doing great things … I'm all for bringing new fans and seeing fans get excited about it, people like Chase or Ryan Blaney or Kyle Larson . "I support it 100 percent."
Hall of Fame preview: Mark Martin amongst contenders
RELATED: Meet 2017's nominees Mark Martin will be one of 20 people considered for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame when the Voting Panel convenes in Charlotte on Wednesday to determine the 2017 class. Three of those on the ballot are former premier series champions -- Red Byron, NASCAR's first Strictly Stock champion in 1949; Benny Parsons, the 1973 winner who went on to enjoy a successful second career in the broadcast booth; and Alan Kulwicki, killed in a plane crash just four-and-a-half months after capturing the 1992 crown. There was no championship trophy for Martin, who retired from competition at the end of the 2013 season. But that doesn't diminish the accomplishments the Batesville, Arkansas, native garnered during a career that spanned more than three decades. Martin, 57, won 40 times in the premier series, with victories coming at 21 different tracks. He finished 10th or better 453 times, in more than half of his 882 career starts. He also won 56 poles. RELATED: Live stream, 5 p.m. ET, Wednesday In the battle for the championship, Martin placed second five times, a mark he shares with current Hall of Fame member Bobby Allison, and he scored 17 top-10 points finishes during his career. "It makes me proud I was able to be as successful as I was and grateful for the opportunities I had," Martin told Little Rock, Arkansas, radio station KABZ-FM recently. "To be real honest I didn't enjoy a … significant part of my career because I was trying so hard to get that championship because I wanted it, and even more than that, the people who supported me wanted it for me so badly. I saw time running out. "I spent too much of my time focused on that and not enjoying the opportunities I had. Today, when I look back on it I wish I hadn't done that." Martin lost the 1990 title by 26 points to Dale Earnhardt and finished second to the Richard Childress Racing driver again four years later. Other runner-up finishes through the years came against Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson . "My life would not be different one bit had I won one of those or not," Martin said. "I had a great career. … I don't think it would have changed a thing in my life had I won one of those trophies. I was very close. I got beat by only four of the greatest of all time in NASCAR in my opinion. … "I'm not embarrassed." Earnhardt was one of five members inducted into the Hall’s inaugural class in 2010. Gordon , a four-time series champion with 93 career victories, retired from driving at the end of 2015 and won't be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration until 2018 and possible induction until '19. Stewart, winner of three premier series titles and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing , will cease to compete full time in the series following the 2016 season. Johnson is a six-time champion and boasts 77 career wins, including two thus far this season. In addition to his premier series exploits, Martin held the XFINITY Series record for career wins for 14 years and is also a seven-time winner in the Camping World Truck Series. It is his second consecutive appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot. First-year nominees for the 2017 ballot are former Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr ., team co-owner Jack Roush, driver Ricky Rudd, noted crew chief and engine builder Waddell Wilson and broadcaster Ken Squier. Rounding out the list of nominees are Buddy Baker, Richard Childress, Ray Evernham, Ray Fox, Rick Hendrick, Harry Hyde, Hershel McGriff, Raymond Parks, Larry Phillips, Mike Stefanik and Robert Yates. Also to be determined by the Voting Panel is the 2017 recipient of the Landmark Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to NASCAR. The five nominees are Martinsville Speedway track founder H. Clay Earles, driver Janet Guthrie, team owner Raymond Parks, former RJ Reynolds executive Ralph Seagraves and Squier. The Voting Panel is scheduled to begin the selection process Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. ET at the Charlotte Convention Center. The announcement of those chosen will take place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame's Great Hall (5 p.m. ET, NBCSN). NASCAR.com will also live stream the event: You can watch it live here.
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
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 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.
Driving While Daddy: How fatherhood affects NASCAR drivers
The 2014 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was one of the most anticipated races in NASCAR history, the culmination of the sport's widely anticipated new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format. Already that year, the Chase had been the wildest in history, with drivers fighting after races at Charlotte and Texas, and Ryan Newman wrecking Kyle Larson on the last lap at Phoenix to bully his way into the four-driver finale. The final race pitted Kevin Harvick against Newman, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin in the first-ever, best-finisher-wins-the-Sprint-Cup format. Harvick had already had the most dominant season of his career and set personal records in poles, laps led and earnings -- all of which would be diminished, if not forgotten, if he didn't win the championship. He was the favorite, but in a high-stakes, one-race, do-or-die format, nobody knew what to expect, Harvick included. Leading up to the race, he examined problems that could crop up and strived to eliminate as many of them as he could. He thought back to the season finale the year before. His son, Keelan, was 1 1/2 at the time and had cried all night long. It's hard enough to sleep in a house with a racket like that. In the 40-foot motorhome in which Harvick sleeps at the race track, it was impossible. Harvick got, at most, two hours of sleep that night. He managed to overcome his exhaustion enough to finish 10th. But he knew that a sleep-deprived 10th wouldn't be good enough to win the 2014 championship. On the eve of the season finale in 2014, Keelan was 2 1/2 and thus less likely to spend the whole night crying, but Harvick took no chances. He rented a separate motorhome for Keelan to sleep in and parked it near his own motorhome in the infield. If Keelan screamed for hours, Harvick would be oblivious. Harvick slept better that night than he had any other night that week, woke up refreshed, then won the race and the championship.
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 ."
Jeff Gordon makes his FOX NASCAR debut
Jeff Gordon made his 2016 season debut with the FOX NASCAR broadcasting team on FS1's "Race Hub" Monday. Danielle Trotta and Adam Alexander kicked off the episode with Alexander saying, "We've done a lot of shows in this studio, but this is one we'll remember forever." "It's been a great offseason, but I can’t wait to get to Daytona and be part of the FOX team," Gordon said. The Gordon family took a trip to Australia over the competition break, and enjoyed fireworks in Sydney and racing, as well. Gordon reflected on his final season, in which he was in the hunt for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in the Championship 4 Chase race at Homestead-Miami. "You can't script it," Gordon said. "There were struggles. It wasn't the way I wanted it to go all season, but the Chase … and of course the banquet in Las Vegas. It really was the best of times." Watch: @JeffGordonWeb picks his favorite career moments on @FS1 's #NASCAR #RaceHub . https://t.co/j8anHqeUjX — FOX SPORTS: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) January 19, 2016 Gordon and fans alike were shocked when actor Tom Cruise introduced Gordon for his speech at the Sprint Cup Awards banquet in Las Vegas. "I already knew it was going to be an emotional night," Gordon said. "I was really proud to be on that stage, and I also knew it was a chance to reflect on my career. I'm a planner, though. I like to plan and that truly was a surprise. It was very overwhelming." Another surprise from earlier in the season was one of Gordon's retirement gifts. At Texas Motor Speedway , he received two Shetland ponies for his children, Ella and Leo. "I was not real thrilled with Eddie Gossage and Bruton Smith at the time," Gordon said with a laugh, "But they really have been the brightest gift." Gordon said the logistics of pony ownership were interesting, but they have found a stable in North Carolina for the ponies, who are named "Nutella" for Leo's favorite snack and "Prince," though Ella may change her mind about her pony's name. Gordon also joked that he's eager to see what promotors/track owners Gossage and Smith might have in mind for Tony Stewart , who is retiring after the 2016 season. "With Tony's passion and love for animals …. You never know what’s going to happen," Gordon said. Gordon stepped away from driving the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet after the 2015 season (he doesn’t like the word "retire") with 93 wins and four championships in NASCAR’s premier series. Gordon will join fellow analyst Darrell Waltrip and play-by-play announcer Mike Joy when FOX opens the 2016 season with the coverage of SpeedWeeks from Daytona International Speedway . He will help call races, practices and qualifying sessions for the network.
Jeff Gordon overcome by tribute, surprise introduction by Tom Cruise
GALLERY: Red Carpet at NASCAR Awards Show LAS VEGAS -- Jeff Gordon appeared as amazed and surprised as the rest of the people filling the massive banquet hall when actor Tom Cruise walked on stage at Friday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Banquet to introduce the retiring driver and reflect on the four-time champion's storied career. Gordon , sitting in the audience with his wife, Ingrid and two young children, looked completely stunned as Cruise took the stage at the Wynn Las Vegas. And he got steadily emotional from there. "When you are treated to excellence every day for 23 years, that doesn't go away easily,'' Cruise said to Gordon . He talked about "transcendence" and how Gordon has made that happen in his career and in the sport. "He felt as comfortable discussing a championship with George Bush as breaking down Homestead with Kyle Busch , as at-ease with discussing SNL skits with Jimmy Fallon as racing door-to-door with Jimmie Johnson ,'' Cruise said. "And with that, he brought joy to millions, used his immense and deserved popularity for the betterment of the world both at home and abroad. "Transcendence. Few reach it. He did. "And although many of us want to say we'll miss you, what we really mean is we thank you." After Cruise's inspiring tribute, NASCAR Chairman Brian France came on stage to present the 93-time winner with the special and rarely bestowed, "Bill France Award of Excellence" for a spectacular career. Gordon's time in the sport has truly been both of those things. Interestingly enough, the last time the award was presented was to Gordon's team owner Rick Hendrick in 2009. As Gordon took the stage, he and Cruise embraced and shared a fairly lengthy private conversation before Gordon approached the microphone for his final speech as a NASCAR driver. He had clearly been crying. And there would be more to come. "I knew that it was going to be a rough night, but that made it tougher,'' Gordon said. Absorbing the adoration in the room, Gordon succinctly summed up his certain and imminent Hall of Fame career, "It's been absolutely amazing.'' Gordon then thanked a litany of people that launched, sustained, bolstered and punctuated his career before pausing and tearing up again as he looked at Rick and Linda Hendrick -- the only Cup team owner he has ever had. "Thank you so much for choosing me as your driver,'' a tearful Gordon said. "I'm so proud to say I drove for one car owner, the best car owner, my entire Sprint Cup career.'' After thanking his parents, acknowledging the fans and smiling widely as he recognized his family in the audience, Gordon finished his impassioned final speech asking, "Am I going to miss it? There's no doubt." And then the good-natured, wildly popular competitor spoke about the things he wouldn't miss as a driver -- the 90-degree daytime practices for a night race, being the last car on old tires and finally he shared, "debris cautions." But NASCAR's modern era master promised that as a broadcaster beginning next year, he promised to raise all those issues. "Thank you,'' he said in closing and received a lengthy standing ovation.