clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jeff Gordon hoping to retire on top

Jeff Gordon’s delivered the news of his retirement with a personal phone call to each of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Before Jeff Gordon told the world -- or even the No. 24 team -- he first informed teammates Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne about his pending retirement following the 2015 NASCAR season.

Gordon's means of communication was a phone call to each, though only Earnhardt answered. The two shared what Earnhardt described as an emotional 20-30 minute conversation that left him "blown away" and "took his breath."

Unable to get a hold of Johnson and Kahne, Gordon delivered the news via voicemail. It was a message Kahne didn't check until after he saw Gordon's announcement via social media and then realized why Gordon had in fact called.

As for Johnson, he too got a voicemail, however the news was of little surprise. At a New Year's Eve party the two had a conversation, and though Gordon never said directly that he was stepping away at the end of the year, something clicked and it was then that Johnson knew his good friend was serious about retirement.

"There's a party going on and people are everywhere and it was just one of those moments where ... I just got this impression that next year might be his last year," Johnson said Thursday at NASCAR's Media Tour. "He didn't say it outright, he just hinted at it. It was really weird. Then I got the voicemail message and it was like, ‘Oh shit.'"

While shocking to some degree -- after all he was coming off a four-win season and nearly won the championship -- Gordon ending a Hall of Fame career is not a surprise. With an increasingly problematic back -- he was forced out of the car for a day of practice last May at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- and two young children he wants to spend more time with, Gordon hinted at retirement on several occasions in recent years.

Yet every time Gordon would tell team owner Rick Hendrick he was done, the former car salesman would talk his driver out of the idea. And for one year, Gordon would climb back behind the wheel of the No. 24 car, just like he has every season since 1993. But when Gordon broached the subject with Hendrick this past summer, Hendrick knew the timing was right and didn't attempt to change Gordon's mind.

The winningest team owner in NASCAR history understood how important it was to Gordon that he leave on top. And in the midst of a four-win season where he resembled the driver who won four championships in a seven-year span, 2014 fit the criteria for how Gordon wanted to exit. So instead of offering a sales pitch, Hendrick simply told Gordon they could talk at the end of the year.

That conversation came on a January flight to the Barrett-Jackson auto auction, and the next week Gordon made the news public.

"In other years I didn't think it was time and he was thinking about it because he wasn't running as good as he should and doubting himself," Hendrick said. "This year I felt like he was Jeff Gordon every race and at the top of his game I knew there was no sense in pushing him to (return) when he didn't really want to do it because it would have been a disaster."

A joking Hendrick says he expects Gordon to win 14 races and a fifth championship in what will be his swan song. The 14 victories would not just be a personal best for Gordon, who won 13 times in 1998, but move him one ahead of David Pearson for second all-time on NASCAR's win list.

So it goes then that after 23 years Gordon will vacate the No. 24 car. And fittingly to a driver in Chase Elliott, who arrives with as much hype that accompanied Gordon's arrival three decades prior.

The 19-year-old son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, Chase is viewed as a can't-miss-prospect with maturity in and out of the car beyond his years. As an Xfinity Series rookie in 2014, he became the first driver to win a NASCAR touring series championship in his first season.

Elliott's talent is so pronounced veterans Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch would continually laud Elliott's ability to Hendrick. And though he wouldn't state it directly, it made Gordon's decision to leave a bit easier for Hendrick to accept. Because that's how it goes in NASCAR: as one great driver leaves, another is seemingly ready to assume his spot.

"I don't look at it as me trying to fill somebody's shoes -- I don't think you can replace Jeff Gordon in any way," Elliott said. "The best thing I can do is go and try to be myself and do the best job I can behind the wheel."