NASCAR & Auto Racing

Jeff Gordon’s last ride to racing glory at Homestead-Miami Speedway

NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon (car #24) signs memorabilia for the fans during the Ford EcoBoost 400 Sprint Cup Series practice on Saturday, November 21, 2015 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon (car #24) signs memorabilia for the fans during the Ford EcoBoost 400 Sprint Cup Series practice on Saturday, November 21, 2015 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. For the Miami Herald

Jeff Gordon will celebrate his stellar NASCAR career at the former Versace Mansion on Sunday night with a “Last Lap Party” befitting a living legend. Models in La Perla bathing suits will lounge in the opulent Million Mosaic Pool on fun boy floats and magnums of champagne will be flowing until the sun comes up in South Beach.

After 23 seasons, 796 races, four championships, 93 race wins, 81 poles, three Daytona 500 victories and $150 million in winnings, as well as countless charity, TV and corporate appearances that propelled the once regional racing series into the sports world big-time, Gordon has plenty to celebrate.

But the 44-year-old is not quite ready to call it a career. He has some unfinished business. His last championship was 14 years ago. He desperately wants to go out on top with an ending befitting a living legend.

In his storybook finish, he captures his elusive fifth Cup championship by taking the checkered flag at Sunday’s sold out, season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

And he dreams of doing so in triumphant fashion, coming around Turn 4 side-by-side with a fellow championship challenger on the last lap and then winning by a nose after a little “quintessential NASCAR” racing. What a way to end a career that began in the final race of 1992 and in the final race of the sport’s biggest icon, Richard Petty.

It won’t be easy. He’s got to finish ahead of three formidable foes — last year’s champion Kevin Harvick, comeback-of-the-year-driver Kyle Busch and underdog Martin Truex Jr. of the Furniture Row Racing, based in the not-so-racing hotbed of Colorado.

They all survived the Challenger 16, Contender 12 and Eliminator 8 elimination rounds to make the Championship 4. In this latest version of the Chase format, which was first implemented last season, Gordon, Harvick, Truex and Busch all start even. The first of the four to cross the finish line will be crowned the 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion.

Last year, Harvick used a late-race, four-tire pit-stop strategy to help him win at Homestead, edging runner-up Ryan Newman to win his first Sprint Cup title.

“I’d feel really good about my bet in taking the Chase 4 against the field,” NBC analyst Steve Letarte said. “They all view this as a must win. ... If you win, nobody else can do anything to change your outcome. … It would shock me if it doesn’t take a win to take this championship.”

Busch will start third, followed by Gordon (fifth), Truex (11th) and Harvick (13th). The pole-sitter is Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, who called himself: “Mr. Irrelevant” at the qualifying news conference.

Unlike other sports, there’s a whole field of drivers who also will be competing Sunday. Each has victory on their minds.

Still, it’s a good bet that nobody is more excited to take the green flag than Gordon.

“I just love this racetrack,” Gordon said of the 1.5-mile speedway with progressive 18- to 20-degree banking that creates four lanes. “It’s a great track for us to finalize not only my career but this championship battle, multiple grooves, tire wear and falloff, just creates some great racing.

“Plus, it’s a great town to have a good post-party.”

Gordon’s longtime owner, Rick Hendrick, said Gordon has “been enjoying the ride.” But when Gordon climbs into his No. 24 Chevy for the last time, there will be no more Mr. Nice Guy and no time for nostalgia.

The clear front-runner is Harvick. He has been the driver to beat all season. Busch and Truex both are hungry for their first championship. And in racing, anything can happen.

“As we’ve proven through the Chase, even though your car is competitive, there’s a lot of things that can go wrong in our sport, just whether it’s mistakes from me or parts failures or whatever goes on,” Harvick said. “You’re confident in what you have, but you can’t be confident in the results just for the fact that you just never know what can reach out and grab you.”

Harvick has led 2,248 laps this season in his No. 4 Chevy, 889 more than second-best Logano. Harvick has won three races and finished runner-up in another 12. And Homestead’s oval suits him. In addition to his victory last season, he has the best average finish (7.57) at the track among the Championship 4 drivers.

Tony Stewart, a three-time Cup champion and Harvick’s team owner, said Harvick has that “calm, cool nature like Terry Labonte had, but he’s got that aggressive nature like Dale [Earnhardt] Sr. had, as well.”

Harvick, 39, also has finished best among the foursome in 17 of the 35 races he has competed in this season.

“He’s the favorite,” Gordon said. “We’re the sentimentals.”

Truex and Busch also have compelling stories. At the start of the season few people would have picked Truex, 35, to be in contention. He has never finished higher than 11th in the Cup standings and is driving for Furniture Row Racing, a one-car team with a rookie crew chief. The last time a one-car team won a Cup championship was 1992, with driver Alan Kulwicki.

He rebounded from a bad last season, winning at Pocono and edging Carl Edwards by five points in the rain-delayed penultimate race at Phoenix to grab the final championship challenger spot.

Truex turned in the best season of his 12-year career while dealing with the cancer battle being fought by his longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex. She was diagnosed more than a year ago with Stage 3 ovarian cancer and now has only three more treatments left. She will be at the track to root for him.

And, who can forget Busch’s horrific crash in the season-opening Xfinity race just nine months ago at Daytona that landed him in the hospital with a broken leg and broken foot? Busch’s team owner, Joe Gibbs, told him that the injury reminded him of the devastating broken leg sustained in 1985 by Joe Theismann, his star quarterback with the Washington Redskins.

Theismann never played another down, but Busch recovered more quickly than expected. He received a waiver from NASCAR to be able to compete in the Chase. He won four of five races during the summer. And he became a dad. Quite a year.

To win the Cup championship, Busch, who was only 7 when Gordon started his Cup career, said: “I’m going to have to beat my childhood hero and pass that guy for a win.”

The weather also might play a significant role in the 400.5-mile, 267-lap race. On Sunday, the weather forecast calls for 80 percent rain, with scattered showers in the afternoon.

Gordon wanted to retire at the end of last season. But Hendrick said he talked Gordon into returning for one last hurrah. Gordon said it was a “disappointing” season until he eeked into the Chase in 13th place. His 93rd win at Martinsville propelled him into the Championship 4.

“I didn’t think anything could top the Brickyard 400 in 1994, that win, until Martinsville,” Gordon said. “I didn’t think anything could top that 1998 championship where we won 13 races. I’ve always had a tough time trying to balance out which one is the most meaningful, because ’95 was the first [championship]. It was going against Earnhardt; that was huge. … But ’01 was extremely personally gratifying to me, to do it with [crew chief] Robby Loomis, and again, I got a lot of respect in the garage area by doing it with someone other than Ray [crew chief Ray Everham].”

But Gordon said this one is different because it not only is his final race, but also he will be sharing it with his wife and two young kids.

“No matter what, we’re going to go out and be happy and celebrate, but to do it as a champion, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ ” Gordon said. “I just can’t imagine anything that would be more emotional and more exciting and more gratifying than to look at my wife in the eyes and see that reaction from her when that race is over if we win it.”

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