On November 22, 2015, the NASCAR season came to a conclusion. In the end, it was Kyle Busch becoming this year’s champion, after missing out on nearly a third of the year with broken bones in both his legs. It was the most unlikely comeback in the sport’s 60-plus year history, and the greatest return from injury that anyone had ever seen.
Normally, when the season ends, I look back at the big moments of the year that took the lead in the stories. This year, you’d likely hear about this injury, Tony Stewart’s announcement, Michael Waltrip Racing sadly folding its operation, and of course there was the incident at Martinsville between Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.
But this is not one of those articles that focuses on all those moments. Instead, it will focus on the biggest. The moment that started the year with big news, and ended the year in the same way.
The 2015 season was the final ride for a man who spent 23 years behind the wheel of one car, with one owner, and for the entire time, with one sponsor. Call him the “Wonder Boy,” or call him “Big Daddy,” but this was the last time that the fans would see the No. 24 Chevrolet with the familiar driver.
Homestead-Miami Speedway was the final ride for the four-time Cup champion, Jeff Gordon.
When the announcement was revealed in January, after first being told to the team, his family, and then the fans, it was clear that this year would be a special one. It was also clear that he didn’t want to be treated as if it was a “retirement tour” for him, because he wanted his fellow drivers to race him as hard as they could, and make him earn every position.
He wanted to go out on top, showing that his final season was not going to be a bust.
Sure, the days of the major multi-win seasons were behind him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t one driver to watch each week. This was a driver that took NASCAR to a new level when the sport still had an image of where it was mostly men from the south, who spent more time on their cars than with their families. Enter Gordon, a California kid that was raised in Indiana, who spent a lot of time near the big track in Indianapolis.
Gordon didn’t have the image of what was a typical driver at the time – clean look, not much of an accent, and a car that stood out like a bright orange jacket in the wilderness.
The “Wonder Boy” won his first race in 1994, one year after winning Rookie of the Year honors, then won the inaugural Brickyard 400 that same year. In 1995, he and the “Rainbow Warriors” would take home their first ever championship, beating out the driver that fans had long considered their hero, Dale Earnhardt. It was The Intimidator himself that gave Gordon the “Wonder Boy” nickname, but also saw the respect he earned with his driving, and how he held himself alongside the media, fans, and competitors.
From 1996-1998, Gordon won an unprecedented 33 races. At that time, that was the length of an entire season. Two new tracks were added to the schedule in that time, the sport celebrated 50 years of racing, and Gordon tied a record set by Richard Petty by winning 13 races in one season, clinching a championship two races early.
In 2001, NASCAR lost Earnhardt on the final lap of the Daytona 500. That same season, Gordon’s car took on a new look. Gone were the rainbow colors, and in its place were the hot red flames. He would take home his fourth championship, honoring Earnhardt in the process for what he accomplished.
He’s seen more changes in the sport than any other driver, from the style of cars, track designs, crews, technology, and even saw how big the internet was to the sport, and now how key social media has become.
He became the first driver in 2011 to be sponsored by a non-profit organization in AARP and the Drive to End Hunger campaign. His sponsor, DuPont, stayed with him and became a part-time primary sponsor, deciding to stay with him for the long haul in his career.
In fact, Gordon’s sponsorship with DuPont/Axalta is second to STP’s relationship with Petty in length, lasting for 22 years. Pepsi also holds a long relationship with Gordon, starting in 1997 after two seasons where the No. 24 had Coca-Cola on the body panels. That partnership lasted through the 2015 season, 18 years of working together that saw commercials, movie spots, and special paint schemes, plus a couple million-dollar giveaways.
Away from the track, Gordon’s children’s foundation helped multiple kids with life-threatening diseases. On a personal level, he saw highs and lows in life. Already engaged and married by the 1995 season, his relationship with his first wife, Brooke, ended in 2002 with divorce. Shortly after, he met Ingrid Vandebosch, whom he got engaged to in the mid-2000’s.
Now, the two are proud parents of two kids, Ella and Leo, and the family is together, happy and celebrating.
Gordon’s final race had the potential of him taking home a championship. It all stemmed from his final victory, at his favorite track that is Martinsville, where he saw the fans give him an ovation one would think would be for his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Did he get the storybook ending that many thought would come? No, as he would finish third in the championship. But, a title and a trophy weren’t what made his final race special.
To see his fellow competitors honor him, to see the fans hold a sign to say “Thank You” and to go as far as seeing social media use the hashtag #24Ever, it was all he ever wanted. He went out trying to win a championship, but he went out being a competitive driver, which is ultimately what he wanted.
Gordon’s days with the sport aren’t over, as next year he’s going into the broadcast booth for FOX, joining Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip in calling the first half of the season’s races.
But when he walked out of the media center for the final time last week, took off the firesuit to get into a pair of jeans, polo shirt and sneakers, it would be the final time he would do so as a driver.
Next season, the No. 24 takes on a whole new look, with NAPA as the sponsor, and Chase Elliott at the wheel. Quite the change for one of the remaining links to the big boom that NASCAR saw in the 1990’s.
Personally, I have been a fan of Gordon since the beginning. There was some ridicule for his demeanor, because he’d rather swim with fish instead of use bait and a hook to reel them in, or because of the look of his car. But I stayed true, knowing greatness was there. His career ends with 93 wins, four championships, and without question a first-year eligible Hall of Fame induction.
I have met and even interviewed Gordon on a few occasions, and he is exactly what everyone believes. Humble, trustworthy, and a class act.
I have an autographed piece of his in my collection, kept in glass so it isn’t ruined, and one that will never be sold, lost or packed away. It is now something I treasure, and will hold onto for when I am married and can pass on to my kids.
Jeff, you were a class act when you came into the sport, and the exact same when you walked away. You went out on top, and got the sendoff you deserved, one that your rival Earnhardt unfortunately never got.
Thank you, Mr. Gordon. NASCAR is grateful for everything you have done for it, on and off the track. #24Ever.