Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Kyle Busch wins title, Jeff Gordon wins fans

Kyle Busch won the night, the race and the season.

Jeff Gordon won more. He won the smiles, the tears, the respect and the thanks. He won the career.

So many of the 70,000 race fans jammed into Homestead-Miami Speedway for NASCAR’s season-finale race on Sunday were Rainbow Warriors if only for a night, willing a dramatic rally by Gordon, willing his No. 24 Chevrolet to flash first under the checkered flag — willing the perfect ending to a monumental career. The perfect headline was waiting: Won and done.

It didn’t quite happen.

Didn’t matter, either.

Gordon didn’t need to go out as a champion, literally, any more than Derek Jeter needed to go out with one more World Series ring. Both went out as ultimate winners in the broader, historical sense.

The race marked the 20th anniversary of the Homestead track that rose in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, and the 14th consecutive year NASCAR has held its season-ending championship race here.

Busch won the Sprint Cup season title not because he won the race, but because he finished ahead of the three other drivers eligible for the championship. He edged runner-up Kevin Harvick by 1.553 seconds over 267 laps and 400 miles in a start delayed almost two hours by rain. Gordon finished in sixth place in the full 43-driver field, and Martin Truex Jr. 12th.

Busch winning is a great story: An at-times temperamental bad boy winning his first season crown the year he missed four months with a broken leg sustained in a crash.

“A dream of a lifetime, a dream come true,” Busch called it as fireworks boomed overhead. “With all the turmoil we went through? Awesome, awesome, awesome.”

Season championships are won every year, though.

Stars such as Gordon grace a sport and bid it goodbye maybe once a generation.

He slips now into retirement and a TV analyst’s booth, at a still-boyish 44. And goes there contented.

“It didn’t take the championship for me to come out of here feeling like I’m on top of the world,” Gordon said. “I’m proud of everything. It’s a happy, happy, good day. I wanted that win, but we’re still going to celebrate. What an amazing experience. All the love from the fans and from everyone in the sport — there’s nothing better than that.”

The race belonged to Busch but the stage, the moment, was all Gordon’s.

He signed hundreds of autographs for fans in the garage area before the race and some wept as their favorite driver handed back a program or hat. Fans were chanting his name.

“It was a surreal moment,” he said. “That one really seemed to hit me the most over the whole weekend. I’ll never forget it.”

On Sunday, Danica Patrick wore a No. 24 Gordon cap. Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton wanted to pose for a photo. So did legend Mario Andretti. (“How cool was that!” Gordon said.) Country star Tim McGraw, who performed before the race, gushed to shake Gordon’s hand. Harvick wanted a picture of himself taken beside the No. 24 car.

Respect came in a torrent for a retiring legend.

Gordon’s four season championships, the last in 2001, were the fourth-most ever. He won three Daytona 500s. His 93 race wins rank third in NASCAR history, and most in the sport’s modern era (since 1972).

Less talked about but equally remarkable, Gordon was Cal Ripken at blur speed, an iron-man who missed not a single race in 24 years of racing at his sport’s highest level. Sunday was his 797th start in a row.

Don’t measure Gordon’s legacy just by wins or records, though.

“He transformed NASCAR from a regional sport with mostly Deep South markets to mainstream markets like Chicago and Miami,” said Al Garcia, Homestead-Miami Speedway vice president. “He broadened the appeal and made it nationwide.”

Gordon was the diminutive, handsome, charismatic star who appeared on late-night TV, hosted Saturday Night Live, did guest spots on sitcoms and in movies. He was lampooned on South Park, and featured in a Tank McNamara comic strip. He helped make NASCAR mainstream.

The sport slow to yield its North Carolina accent and Confederate flags became popular from coast to coast because Gordon led the way.

He was the star who transcended the sport.

In the end, emotion found him and it hit hard. His mother wandered by his trailer in the garage area early Sunday morning, and it all came out.

“I just started thanking her over and over again,” he said. “It was boo-hooing as loud as a person can boo-hoo. Tears were pouring down my face.”

Later, near race time, before he climbed in his car for the last time, Gordon walked toward it with his 7-year-old daughter Ella Sofia, her strawberry blonde hair riffling in the South Florida breeze. His wife and their 4-year-old boy, Leo, walked with them.

Gordon recalled trying to explain to Ella Sofia that Daddy was retiring.

There were more tears. His, not hers.

“She had never seen me like that,” he said. “I tried to explain that tears don’t always mean sad. Sometimes they mean you’re proud.”

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