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 ."
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
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.
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 Below is a numbers breakdown of Jeff Gordon 's stats in his four championship seasons, plus 2015.
Podcast includes each noteworthy storyline from Championship 4 As the season comes to a close at the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway , the Dirty Air Podcast has a lot to talk about. Who will win the finale and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship? Chuck Bush, Jonathan Merryman and Matthew Dillner break down the story lines of the four drivers left competing for the title. • Log on to the iTunes Store and subscribe • Or watch the full replay on YouTube With many incredible storylines within the Championship 4, including Kevin Harvick defending his title, Martin Truex Jr . racing as the underdog and Kyle Busch 's legendary comeback. Perhaps the most buzzed about story, however, is Jeff Gordon as he attemps to put an exclamation point on a Hall of Fame career by hitting a walk off with a fifth title. Gordon made his debut in 1992 for the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway , a race debated as one of the most dramatic championship-deciding races in the history of the sport. The Dirty Air trio examines the uncanny similarities between the '92 Atlanta finale and this year's NASCAR championship title bout at Homestead.
RELATED: Full race results " Gordon's final race in photos HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon sat in his parked silver No. 24 Chevrolet for an extended time on pit road following Sunday's season-ending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race; his helmet on, his heart still beating fast. After several minutes, he exited his race car for the final time in 23 years of amazing, highest-level effort after a sixth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- good enough for third place in his final Sprint Cup championship run. But instead of getting emotional about the end of his certain Hall-of-Fame career, the four-time champ found himself immediately reassuring others as the sellout crowd cheered loudly. Gordon's only team owner, Rick Hendrick, inserted himself between television interviews for an embrace with Gordon , the two speaking privately at length. "I'm real happy for him," Hendrick said. "I told him I loved him. And he said he loved me. I thanked him for all the years." Hendrick then walked away with Gordon's final race helmet, a gift the driver had planned for some time. Moments later Gordon's wife, Ingrid, arrived at his side on pit road for a kiss and long hug. Then she looked up into the sky, tears in her eyes, as Gordon , 44, bent down and embraced his children, Ella, 8, and Leo, 5. Gordon was as strong and vibrant in his goodbye as he was throughout a 93-win, high-achieving career that started out mustachioed and celebrated, Dale Earnhardt milquetoasted and, finally, fittingly much-appreciated. RELATED: Full coverage of Gordon's final race All those who booed the kid who won too much, cheered the man who transformed the sport. It was a two-way street this weekend in South Florida. "Well, we all know nothing would have been quite better than the win," Gordon said. "But I've learned a lot in life, and there's no such thing as a perfect day and a perfect life. Just like there's no such thing as a perfect race car. They're really close and good and at times better than the rest, but it doesn't mean that they're ever perfect." Throughout the weekend Gordon was acknowledged and honored by everyone who knew him from family, to sponsors to his fiercest competitors. During the rain-delayed driver introduction session, Formula One champ Lewis Hamilton stood with Gordon and took photos with the four-time NASCAR champ, looking far more fan than racing champion himself. Several IndyCar Series drivers made the trip to South Florida to bid Gordon goodbye, including Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden. "Of course," Mario Andretti said of attending the race to support Gordon . "He's an icon. Not just the personality he brought to the sport as a racer, but as a person himself. He's been a big contributor to NASCAR's personality, no doubt about it. He will be missed, but he won't be going too far away. "He's certainly kept up the time. He's still a young man and he's retiring relatively young, which is wonderful. He's on top of his game and you can't do any better than that. He's living a wonderful life and he's the envy of a lot of people for what he's done. I just wish him well." Gordon conceded he was impressed and endeared by the pair's presence at his celebrated final race. "I do believe he's the greatest driver of all time," Gordon said of Andretti. "And Lewis, I met at the Super Bowl a couple years ago. I'm a big fan of that sport. I was already a fan of his and he won the championship and we stayed in touch. I was trying to get him to come to a race and today was the race he could come to. " … I wouldn't necessarily say I'm in their league, but I have a ton of respect for them and am so happy they were here today." After an emotional driver introduction ceremony, Gordon walked with his daughter Ella down pit road, waving to the sellout crowd that would surprise him at race start with front grandstands fan placards that spelled out, "Thank You Jeff . 24Ever" As Gordon's car rolled off pit road to start the race, pit crew members from all the teams stood along the pit wall to clap and honor him. WATCH: Pit crews honor Gordon Earlier, Gordon's afternoon included a standing ovation at the driver's meeting and a short clip of Gordon , showing him from his earliest open-wheel days to his NASCAR entree and some of his finest multiple winning moments. The support was a theme throughout the weekend. Fans crowded around Gordon's team hauler in the infield, and he had to have security personnel from the South Miami Police guard his No. 24 as it snaked through the garage for final inspection Sunday morning. About 100 fans stood behind temporary barriers at Gordon's team transporter in the garage hoping for a glimpse of the real thing. Carla Piccarreto and her 24-year-old son James traveled to South Florida from upstate New York and had been standing at Gordon's team transporter since the garage opened -- about three hours. They'd still not seen Gordon by race morning but were intent to wait it out for him. "Yesterday we saw the crowd swarm him, chanting his name and we were afraid for him," Carla said, smiling. Standing next to her, Joe Fiorello, 39, of Delray Beach, Florida, was wearing his best -- if faded, and mustard-stained -- original Jeff Gordon T-shirt. Jeffrey Jones was in the group, as well, holding a custom-made guitar shaped in a 24. He gave one to Hendrick earlier in the week and left a rainbow-colored version with the team for Gordon . WATCH: Fans salute Gordon with card trick Timothy and Britney Prior were also standing outside Gordon's team hauler hoping for a photo, autograph or handshake. They drove 14 hours from Danville, Virginia, to attend the event and support their favorite driver. The couple is so committed that Timothy's back is completely tattooed with Gordon's cars and even Gordon's signature, something they got back in 2011. While the couple didn't have a chance to see their favorite driver in the garage, they did after the race -- and Gordon had Timothy tag along to his post-race press conference, where he introduced the longtime supporter. "You want to talk about commitment and a loyal fan and a nice guy, this guy is awesome," Gordon said. "Now that right there, folks, that's commitment. That is commitment. "But I just happened to run into him on the way in here, and I just wanted him to be here and be a part of it because he's a huge fan, and I appreciate him and all of our fans so much, especially what I saw this weekend." RELATED: Gordon says, 'We're still going to celebrate' As Gordon spoke to the media after the race, he seemed truly at peace, extremely happy and, as we know, as accomplished a modern-day driver as one could be. His final race was fitting and he will leave South Florida -- after a big party Sunday night -- feeling fulfilled, respected and loved. "That sendoff at the drivers' meeting, you know, drivers are so competitive, and they don't show ‑‑ they might have it inside them, but to show it publicly, their appreciation for other competitors, just doesn't happen like that very often, and I really, really appreciate it very, very much," Gordon said. "I'm looking forward to the rest of the evening, as well. "Talking more about my career and the moments and what it's all meant to me, this is why me and my mom having this conversation this morning was so important to me. We talked about the television station that filmed my quarter midget race when I was like 6 years old and I never understood why. I found out I was on the cover of a kids magazine with my quarter midget. "To come from that and have this ... it blows my mind. Just being here and part of my day, to wrap up this amazing career it didn't take a championship for me to feel like I'm on top of the world."
RELATED: Full coverage of Gordon's last race Ray Evernham does more than just hope Jeff Gordon can close out his career by capturing a fifth NASCAR premier series title Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM). He expects it. "Absolutely. No question," Evernham said in a telephone interview with NASCAR.com earlier this week. "All he has to do is be Jeff Gordon one more time. If he can take the 23 years of who he's been and be that one more time, those guys are in trouble." Who Gordon has been is one of the sport's most dominating drivers, with four championships -- fourth most in series history -- and 93 victories (third overall and tops among active drivers). Evernham speaks from experience. From 1992, when Gordon made his premier series debut in the season-ending race at Atlanta Motor Speedway , through 1999, Evernham was the team’s crew chief, orchestrating a game plan that took the Hendrick Motorsports team, and Gordon , to the very top of the sport. Standing between Gordon and a fifth title are three other drivers -- defending series champion Kevin Harvick ( Stewart-Haas Racing ), four-time race winner Kyle Busch ( Joe Gibbs Racing ) and Martin Truex Jr . ( Furniture Row Racing ). RELATED: Road to Homestead for the Championship 4 Gordon is the only driver to advance to the final round by winning one of the previous round's three races -- scoring a ninth career victory at Martinsville Speedway . The winners of the remaining two Eliminator Round races were Gordon's teammates, six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr . "I know (crew chief) Alan Gustafson and that group have worked incredibly hard on that car for him and I've always said you're only limited by how much time you have to prepare," Evernham said. "And I really believe that those guys have had more time to focus on that car than the other teams. "Everybody else said they could (focus on Homestead) but they couldn't." Harvick has been in this situation before, having survived the pressure cooker of a one-race championship battle last season. His results this season have been no less impressive. Busch missed the season's first 11 Sprint Cup races while recovering from a broken right leg and left foot suffered in the season-opening NASCAR XFINITY Series race to win four races in a five-race span. A winner at Pocono, Truex has Chase experience and finished 10th or better in 14 of the season’s first 15 races with his single-car team based in Denver, Colorado. A title by any of the four would be big. A win by Gordon , according to Evernham, would be huge. RELATED: Gordon's drive for five "If he pulls this off this weekend, this is just not a motorsports thing," Evernham said. "This is a major sports story, one of the greatest sports stories of our lifetime. "If you look at somebody who’s been able to be that competitive over 23 years, different cars, different rules, different things. It's not like playing football or baseball. I get what (John) Elway and those guys did and that's fantastic. But if you look at the changes he has had to deal with over the past 23 years, from the time that we rolled into Atlanta in November of 1992, our very first race, he's never missed a race. And here he’s going into his last race to battle for the championship. "To me, that's not just a motorsports story, that’s an incredible sports story overall."
RELATED: Full coverage of Gordon's final start HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs, officials and dignitaries toasted retiring four-time champion Jeff Gordon with a standing ovation in the drivers' and crew chiefs' meeting before Sunday's season finale. But they also received a stern warning from NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton to let 2015's last race play out naturally. Gordon , just hours before making his 797th start in NASCAR's premier series, was singled out by Helton and NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France during his final drivers' meeting as a full-time competitor at Homestead-Miami Speedway . Attendees were also treated to a commemorative video that captured moments from his nearly lifelong career in motorsports. " Jeff , congratulations on an outstanding career," Helton said after the video presentation. "Thank you for all you've done for NASCAR, and will do, but certainly what all you've done throughout that career. You're a true champion and cross over in a lot of venues as a top-shelf guy, so thank you." Several drivers paid tribute by wearing Jeff Gordon hats to the meeting, including Kyle Larson , Danica Patrick and all of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates -- Dale Earnhardt Jr . , Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne . RELATED: Danica pays tribute to Gordon " Larson sports retro Gordon hat Gordon will compete for a Sprint Cup championship in Sunday's season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM), battling Kyle Busch , defending champ Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr . as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs draw to a close. Helton urged all participants to let the title contest unfold without any underhanded tactics over the course of the 400 miles. "So this is our last race and this'll be the last time you hear this from anybody at the podium up here, but drivers and crew chiefs, crewmembers, spotters, everybody let the race play out in its natural course," Helton said. "No one needs to interfere with the natural unfolding of this event. This is our last opportunity, it's a great opportunity for four drivers. There's 39 others that are participating in this race, but crew chiefs -- and pass this on to your spotters -- and drivers, be sure that this day concludes on a high note with no interference of a naturally progressed race." Helton also gave priority recognition to country music entertainer Tim McGraw, excusing him early so that he could perform a pre-race concert on the 1.5-mile track's frontstretch.
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Though the gravity of the end of his stellar NASCAR career is becoming more and more real, Jeff Gordon has maintained that the full impact won't be felt until the checkered flag falls on Sunday's finale. The same could be said for his longtime team owner, Rick Hendrick, who claims at least partial responsibility for keeping Gordon's career going to this point. Hendrick, who helped bring Gordon to NASCAR's big leagues in 1993, has coaxed a handful of extra seasons out of the 44-year-old driver in the twilight of his career, so much so that he's actually turned "one more year" into a verb. On the plane ride back from last Sunday's race at Phoenix, which left one more weekend ahead of them as driver and owner, Hendrick couldn't resist one more playful request for a 2016 return to the No. 24 Chevrolet. Gordon declined, especially at peace with his decision with one more championship to pursue. "It's hard to believe," Hendrick said Thursday, days ahead of Gordon's 797th start in NASCAR's top division. "It just seems like yesterday that he got started. … He just doesn't look like he's ready to retire. When I look at him and how young he looks, how good he is, it's like, man, but I've one-more-yeared him a couple of times, so I think I ran out of rope." The rope might end Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM), but Gordon won't be completely forgoing a career in motorsports. He'll be staying with Hendrick Motorsports to groom successor Chase Elliott in his transition to the No. 24 ride and will remain a fixture in the TV booth with NASCAR broadcast partner FOX Sports. But Gordon also left open the possibility for potential driving detail on the horizon, in a part-time role. "That's the beautiful thing about racing. It doesn't mean that I won't ever drive a race car again," Gordon said. "There's a lot of different types of series and cars out there that I maybe have never driven before and may have an interest in doing that. But currently, you know, I'm very content with the decision. I don't plan on doing any Cup races in the future. I know what a disruption that is to Hendrick Motorsports and the team that I'm still going to be involved with, and I've got enough things on my plate that are going to keep me very, very busy." Plenty of those busy activities -- watching his kids' soccer games, spending more time at home and being there with his family -- won't take place inside the microcosm of the race track. Admittedly, it was a decision Gordon had lobbied for earlier, but one where the timing never quite sorted itself out. When Gordon made his final announcement Jan. 22, Gordon sat poised to improve upon 2014, a season where he racked up four wins but fell short of the championship round by a single point. As the farewell gifts stacked up this season, the wins didn't, but Gordon & Co. still relied on their remarkable consistency and scrappy spirit. When the No. 24 finally broke through, clinching a title berth with a rousing victory at Martinsville Speedway , Gordon received further confidence that his career-altering decision was the right one. "That win in Martinsville, solidifying our chance to come here as a championship contender, that just sealed it for me," Gordon said. "I was more disappointed of how earlier in the season we weren't getting the results. We weren't putting the performances together. We weren't running as good as we wanted to. I was making some mistakes. I was thinking to myself, man, I don't want to go out like this, I want to go out being competitive, battling for wins. That's what would make me happy. "And we did -- all through the Chase we've been able to step up and perform the way I was hoping that we would, and then of course the Martinsville win, and now here we are with that same opportunity. That's how you want to go out, and that's how I hope I can." Gordon's demonstrative celebration at Martinsville might have warranted a penalty in the NFL, but the jubilation was nowhere near excessive considering the impact on one of the sport's greatest drivers with a chance for a fifth series championship. Should that crowning achievement come true Sunday, Hendrick said the moment would mark a celebration -- much like this season -- worth sticking around for. "You know, that's going to be an emotion that'll happen -- I think we'll all go bananas," Hendrick said. "It'll be just like what you saw at Martinsville on steroids, because everybody will be so proud and happy for him and the fact that he can -- and some of you guys are the ones that said it to me early; it's a walk-off home run, and I don't know how it could get any sweeter than to see a guy, especially for me, that meant so much to me personally, to our organization, could end his career that way. It would just be a fairy-tale story. I think it would be probably the biggest championship won in the last I don't know how many years."