Jeff Gordon’s not-quite-farewell tour takes a turn for the better

FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 11:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Panasonic Chevrolet, takes part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 11, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

FORT WORTH, TX – APRIL 11: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Panasonic Chevrolet, takes part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 11, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

The start of the 2015 season was so, so promising for driver Jeff Gordon—and how quickly it turned.

In what was likely to be the final time he would qualify for NASCAR’s biggest race, Gordon won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500.

From that pinnacle, however, the season headed south for Gordon and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team about as fast as Gordon’s Chevrolet could carry him.

After leading a race-high 87 laps at Daytona, Gordon was collected in a backstretch crash on the final circuit of a green-white-checkered-flag finish and came home 33rd. So much for the auspicious beginning to what will be his final full-time season in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing.

A week later, when the series moved to Atlanta, Gordon’s car didn’t make it through the inspection line in time for the four-time series champion to make a qualifying run. Gordon started 35th and, gobbled up in a Lap 257 wreck, finished 41st.

Strike two—and that was at a track where the promoters had painted a tribute to the No. 24 Chevy on the infield grass. On Lap 24 of the race, the scoring pylon flashed “24” in place of every other car number.

At least Gordon was still running at the time.

In the season’s third race, at Las Vegas, Gordon won his second pole of the season and the 79th of his career, far and away the top number among active drivers.

But again, the euphoria of the pole run didn’t last. In Sprint Cup practice on Saturday, Danica Patrick spun her No. 10 Chevrolet in Turn 2, collecting Gordon in the process.

A frustrated Gordon posted the following tweet:

“Just when u think everything is starting to go your way 10 spins in front of u & ruins ur day & the @3MRacing @TeamChevy. Going to backup!”

Forced to start from the rear of the field after rolling out the backup car, Gordon was unable to make up the lost ground and finished 18th, one lap down.

After that race, you had to click to the second page of the driver standings on NASCAR.com to find Gordon’s name. He was 30th, sandwiched between Michael McDowell and Cole Whitt—not exactly the sort of farewell tour Gordon fans had anticipated.

In fact, though, Gordon shuns the use of terms like “farewell tour” and “retirement.” Pointedly, he has indicated he may return to certain races at certain tracks (can you say Martinsville?) if there’s a competitive ride available.

And just as pointedly, Gordon has asked tracks not to make too big a fuss over him during what could be his last visit as a Sprint Cup competitor.

The tracks, on the other hand, haven’t been able to resist showing their appreciation for a shoo-in NASCAR Hall of Fame career. In addition to the visible tributes during the race, Atlanta, for example, gave Gordon a bandolero car for his children.

Others promoters have contributed equally thoughtful mementos.

“I feel like everybody has done something,” Gordon told the NASCAR Wire Service during a question-and-answer session last Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. “I guess the first one where we showed up at Atlanta and it just had I think ‘Thanks Jeff’ or ‘Thanks 24’ on the grass there. That was the first one that kind of hit me. That was very cool. Then you know what they did at lap 24 there.

“Then we went to Vegas and they had the ‘Speed Limit 24’ signs. Every week it really kind of overwhelms me and is very cool to see what the tracks are doing. I’m very appreciative of that and the fans getting involved. Nothing really to me is better than at Martinsville taking the lead and seeing the fans go crazy.

“That to me is what I enjoy the most. I hope we can do some more of that. I want to do more giving back to them than them doing anything to honor me. Maybe the second half of the year when we are coming to these tracks for the last time, maybe there will be a little bit more of that.”

The best present Gordon can give to his fans is running up front, and that’s what he did on March 29 at Martinsville—before Murphy’s Law struck again. Gordon sped on pit road approaching his stall, and the resulting late-race penalty quashed his winning chances.

But Gordon drove like a madman in the closing laps, advancing from the rear of the field to ninth at the finish. As disappointing as the penalty was, the speed of his car was exhilarating.

With top-10 runs in each of the four races after Las Vegas, Gordon has climbed from 30th to 13th in the standings, a more fitting position for one of NASCAR racing’s top talents.

And as talented and competitive as Gordon is, the driver of the No. 24 isn’t ready to close the book on a career that features 92 Sprint Cup wins, third-most all-time. Gordon’s unbroken streak of 768 starts in NASCAR’s premier series dates to his debut at Atlanta in 1992, and assuming it continues throughout the season, he will break Ricky Rudd’s record streak of 788 consecutive starts in the Chase race at New Hampshire in September.

But records or not, don’t talk to Gordon about “retirement.” The lure of tracks like Martinsville, where Gordon collected eight of his victories, is enough to keep the options open. When Gordon announced his exit from full-time racing, with Chase Elliott ready to fill the seat of the 24 next year, he wouldn’t rule out an occasional return to competition.

“Martinsville is probably the reason when we made the announcement in January why we left that little bit of window and door open,” Gordon said before the Cup race at the .526-mile short track. “This is probably the first track that comes to mind for me that if I ran another race – not that I have plans to – that I’d do it at Martinsville … Truck, Cup, maybe Late Model. I just love this track.”

And Gordon loves his chosen sport, too, with an affection that has remained steadfast through what will soon be 23 seasons of full-time racing.

If that affection draws Gordon back to competition for an occasional race, one thing is certain.

He will be more than welcome.

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