DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jeff Gordon chatted casually with some of his crew as a crowd of fans gathered in the window behind his garage stall at Daytona International Speedway. He opened the toolbox behind him, grabbed a Sharpie and turned to the assembly to autograph the dozens of die casts, programs and T-shirts they shoved at him.
This is Gordon’s final Daytona 500, the final season of an illustrious career, and everyone wants in on the farewell tour.
Only Gordon wants no part of the tributes, the celebrations, the hailing of one of NASCAR’s all-time greats.
He just wants to race.
And in a very fitting fashion, Gordon will lead the field to green on Sunday in his final Daytona 500.
The four-time NASCAR champion won the pole for the “The Great American Race,” and he will try to open his 23rd season with a fourth victory in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl. That’s where his focus is right now, and not on pausing to reflect on these farewells.
He’s relaxed and ready to chase the win Sunday, chase them all season long, and maybe just ride off with a fifth championship.
“It’s kind of all or nothing for me. I got one last chance. I can take chances,” he said. “Yeah, I want to win the championship. I want points. But right now it’s the Daytona 500. All I want to focus on is winning the Daytona 500. I’m just enjoying the ride, enjoying the moment.”
Barring any mistakes or mishaps — and the Daytona 500 is a race known for weird finishes and fluke winners — nothing has indicated Gordon won’t be in contention on Sunday.
Hendrick Motorsports appears to be the class of the field and will start 1-2-3 on Sunday. Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, gave Chevrolet a sweep of the front row on the first day of qualifying.
Then Dale Earnhardt Jr., who picked up his second Daytona 500 victory last year, won a qualifying race this week to earn the third starting spot. Gordon finished second to Earnhardt in that 150-mile race; Johnson won the second qualifying race.
Only Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth has beaten the Hendrick cars during Speedweeks — he won an exhibition race a week ago, and his Toyota appears strong enough to hang with Hendrick if he gets the right breaks.
Johnson believes all four Gibbs cars — Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and newcomer Carl Edwards — will be in the mix.
“I think the Gibbs cars are right there with us. Those guys know what they’re doing,” Johnson said.
It’s not been the smoothest week for Hamlin, though. He’s had two incidents with Danica Patrick, with Thursday night’s spin leading to a post-race confrontation. The two spins by Patrick — both while Hamlin was behind her on the track — have Patrick in her third car of the week. Hamlin has maintained he never touched her car, and her spins were aerodynamic issues.
Patrick is adamant that Hamlin is at fault for what’s turned into a trying Speedweeks. In addition to her wrecked cars, she had to race her way into the Daytona 500 in a qualifying race, and her third car broke a water line in Friday’s practice.
“I just think that he’s wrong. I think that he’s too close,” said Patrick, who last year became the first woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500. “I think that he’s taking the air and getting it off the spoiler, and he’s not squared up either. That’s also part of the problem. I don’t know. Maybe he likes my left rear.”
Patrick was defended in her spat with Hamlin by team co-owner Tony Stewart, who walked down pit road to offer his opinion of the incident. He wasn’t pleased he’d lost two race cars, but the team was jubilant at the help Kurt Busch gave his teammate by pushing her through the field and into the Daytona 500 when she needed help to make the race.
SHR, which fields a car for reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, has been waiting for more than a month for a resolution in the domestic assault case filed against Busch by an ex-girlfriend. The Delaware judge who had ordered Busch to stay away from Patricia Driscoll said Friday there’s a “substantial likelihood” of Busch committing acts of domestic violence in the future, and Busch was suspended by NASCAR indefinitely on Friday night.
An attorney for Busch said the driver would appeal the NASCAR suspension, and a three-person panel can hear it as early as Saturday.
It’s been a distraction for a newly energized SHR led by Stewart, who is in the best mental and physical condition in almost two years. A broken leg in a sprint car crash in 2013 appears finally healed to the point it no longer bothers the three-time champion, and the emotional toll from the death of Kevin Ward Jr., who was killed last August when Stewart struck him with a sprint car during a race, has lifted.
So with a bounce in his step and his spark back, Stewart goes into his 17th Daytona 500 seeking his first win in the storied race.
“To be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports,” Stewart said. “To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a race car driver.”
There will be attention on Stewart on Sunday, but it will pale in comparison to the spotlight on Gordon.
Even before the drop of the green flag, people are keenly aware of the meaning behind this race for an all-time great.
“Our sport is going to be different without him,” said Johnson, a six-time champion. “For 23 years he’s been such a force on the track. Our sport is not going to necessarily suffer from (Gordon’s retirement), but it’s just not the same. It’s Jeff Gordon.”
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