AVONDALE, Ariz. –On Saturday morning, next to the NASCAR transporter in the Sprint Cup Series garage, reporters gathered to honor Jeff Gordon for his benevolence and accessibility to the media over his 24-year career.
Organized by veteran writers Mike Hembree and Kenny Bruce, the informal ceremony included the presentation of a gift the reporters knew Gordon didn’t already have — a trophy from Kentucky Speedway, the only active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series track where Gordon has never won.
Instead of “Winner” or “Champion,” the trophy was inscribed “Participant,” and Gordon appreciated the joke.
The media originally wanted to honor Gordon at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but that was before Gordon won the Nov. 1 race at Martinsville and qualified for the Championship Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Gordon promised that, if he should win a fifth champion at Homestead, his emotional celebration at Martinsville would pale in comparison with the exultation he would feel at ending his career in the No. 24 Chevrolet as a champion.
“Just like in Martinsville, I didn’t go into that race expecting us to win or think about what that was going to be like if we did win,” Gordon said. “But you saw the raw emotion of what that win meant to me.
“That’s nothing compared to what you’ll see in Homestead if we do that. I literally will be climbing the fences. I’ll be down with a bad back for the next week, but it will all be worth it.”
Kurt Busch, another driver in dire need of a Phoenix victory to keep his championship hopes intact, led both Saturday practice sessions at the one-mile track. Busch, who qualified second for Sunday’s Sprint Cup event, also showed excellent speed in race trim, posting a lap at 139.627 mph in Saturday morning’s practice and 140.029 mph in Happy Hour…
Team owner Richard Petty confirmed during a meeting with reporters on Saturday morning that former Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. will not return to the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford in 2016. Petty, however, was not ready to name a replacement for Hornish, who has only three top-10 finishes in 34 races this season. “We’ve got to look at sponsorship as much as anything else,” Petty said. “It’s a combination deal. We can’t just go with a driver and then not have the money, and we can’t go with just the money and not have a driver, so it’s going to be interesting.”