HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Jeff Gordon climbed out of his race car and stepped into the waiting arms of team owner Rick Hendrick.
They shared a long embrace and some words of encouragement. Gordon handed Hendrick his helmet, kissed his wife and hugged his two kids before getting mobbed by fans. Someone in the crowd screamed “You’re still the man!”
Just not the champion.
Gordon failed to add a fairytale finish to his storied career Sunday, finishing sixth in the NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I’m a little disappointed we weren’t more of a threat in the championship,” said Gordon, a four-time champion who last won it all in 2001. “Beyond that, it’s absolutely been a dream come true.”
Kyle Busch won the race and his first Sprint Cup championship. Kevin Harvick finished second in the Chase playoffs, followed by Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. Those four were the only ones remaining in the hunt for the championship.
“I knew when those guys got by me, I just didn’t have what they had,” Gordon said about Busch and Harvick.
Busch, who missed the first 11 races after breaking his right leg and leg foot, was the comeback kid. Harvick was the defending Sprint Cup series champion. Truex was the underdog driving for a small team.
Gordon was the overwhelming sentimental favorite. It showed before, during and after the race.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne as well as fellow drivers Danica Patrick and Kyle Larson wore Gordon tribute hats before the finale. Patrick wore one with old-school “rainbow warriors” colors.
Joey Logano posted a picture of him and Gordon on Facebook that showed them sharing a moment when Logano was little.
“You were my idol growing up,” Logano wrote. “Never did I think I’d race against you for wins. Congrats on a great career Jeff Gordon.”
Harvick got a modern-day keepsake when he stopped by Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet — which got a police escort to pit road — and posed for a photo.
NASCAR presented Gordon with a tribute video during the pre-race drivers’ meeting and then everyone in the room, including drivers, sponsors and dignitaries, gave him a standing ovation.
“Jeff, congratulations on an outstanding career. We thank you for all you’ve done for NASCAR and will do,” NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton said. “You’re a true champion and a top-shelf guy.”
Fans lined a red carpet leading to the meeting and showered Gordon with praise. Gordon responded by high-fiving scores of them.
The 44-year-old Gordon announced in January that this would be his last season. He won 93 races in 23 full seasons. He wanted one more — which would have been bigger than the rest.
He hopes to remember all the details of his celebratory day, including visits from racing legend Mario Andretti, three-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and sports-car ace Scott Pruett. Gordon made sure his colleagues will remember the day, too.
To commemorate his last race, Gordon gave each driver in the finale a carbon-fiber ring box inscribed with “Thanks For The Memories” and his or her starting position.
Richard Petty did something similar before the 1992 season finale in Atlanta. Petty gave each driver in that race, including Gordon, a “Petty blue” money clip. Gordon kept it in a drawer and then a safe all these years.
“I just wanted everybody to have something as an appreciation from me to them of what they meant to me racing against them over all the years,” Gordon said. “Seemed like they appreciated it.”
On Saturday, Petty gave Gordon $93 to put in the money clip and told him he had one more dollar ready for him should he win the finale.
It didn’t happen, mostly because Gordon fought an ill-handling race car all afternoon. When it was over, Gordon thanked his crew and Hendrick over the team radio and then made his final turn down pit road.
Truex was among those who stopped by to offer support, reaching over the top of his car to shake Gordon’s hand. NASCAR chairman Brian France also visited.
But nothing was like that moment with Hendrick, his longtime boss and lifelong friend. Gordon’s helmet was created just for his final race and featured pictures of some of his career highlights. He handed it to Hendrick and said, “I want you to have this.”
“It’s like right now the racing doesn’t matter as much as the relationship does,” Hendrick said afterward. “I’d have loved to have won it, loved to have seen him go out with a championship, but we went out in the top four and not many guys do better than that.”
Gordon started to lose it as Hendrick whispered in his ear, but managed to keep his composure. At least for the time being. Gordon insisted that he’ll “loosen up” with a little time and alcohol at his 400-person planned Sunday night.
“If he would have kept going with the things he was saying, it was going to get out of control there,” Gordon said. “I was so happy to have that moment with him.”