DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jeff Gordon was mobbed as he weaved his way from pit road through the Daytona garage and back to his hauler.
Fans in No. 24 apparel pleaded with Gordon for an autograph, a picture. Most of all, they begged for his return.
“Thank you, Jeff!”
“One more time!”
“Jeff, come back!”
Gordon briefly paused for a few signatures before retreating inside. But if the four-time NASCAR champion had a sliver of thought of a return next season to the superspeedway, the scene above reminded him why he walked away — his battered Chevy slowly lifted into the car bay.
Gordon wrecked on the last lap of his final Daytona 500, a crushing end to the start of his final season.
“I’m a little bit sad this is my final Daytona 500,” Gordon said, “but I’m more upset we didn’t have a shot at winning there at the end.”
Austin Dillon turned Gordon in the middle of a huge pack vying for position in the closing two miles at Daytona International Speedway.
Gordon spun, banged into other cars and then eventually sputtered across the finish line in 33rd place.
It wasn’t what Gordon had hoped, but it proved what he said heading into the race: that the risk of racing at superspeedways isn’t worth the reward.
Gordon started on the pole for the “Great American Race” and showed plenty of speed early, leading 77 of the first 100 laps. He was at the front of the field at the midway point, a bad omen for everyone at Daytona.
The last halfway leader to end up in victory lane was Davey Allison in 1992.
“I’m not going to miss those final laps,” Gordon said. “That was just crazy.”
He savored the start so much more.
Gordon walked hand-in-hand with his two young children during race introductions as the packed Daytona grandstands roared for him in February for the final time. He led his daughter, Ella, to the No. 24 that had been swallowed by fans and journalists on pit road. His wife, Ingrid Vandebosch, was mic’d up on her canary yellow dress for the big day. Gordon hugged team owner Rick Hendrick.
Gordon called his family one major reason why he’ll step away from full-time racing. As he watched Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano celebrate nearby with his family, Gordon appreciated the moment.
“That moment you saw there with his dad that is what it’s all about,” Gordon said. “These types of moments, such a big race it means so much to all of us. You want to share that with the people that you are closest to that have been there along the way.”
Gordon won the Daytona 500 in 1997, 1999 and 2005. He finished fourth last season, snapping a string of lackluster finishes for the Hendrick Motorsports star. He finished no better than 20th from 2010-2013.
His early run on Sunday was about as dominant as the No. 24 could go and he was in control until a caution just beyond the midway point derailed him
“That one restart, I chose the outside,” Gordon said. “I was really basing it off who I thought was behind me that could push me. We just didn’t go. The inside lane went better. We got shuffled back. And we just never recovered after that. We were doing everything we could.”
His fans really didn’t mind much.
After one teen boy got his hat autographed, he yelled, ‘Yes! I got him!”
Gordon wished he could have got one more, too.
“I enjoyed every moment of it. I enjoyed the pre-race and the race,” he said, “all the way up to that wreck.”