DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – What might have been passed Jeff Gordon.
As he stood on pit road beside his car – dented and crinkled in a last-lap incident – Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano slowly drove by, revving his engine as he wound his way through the crowd toward Victory Lane.
Gordon, who has said this will be his final full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup season, will never get another chance to make the same trip Logano did for this race. Instead, the record book will show that Gordon – a three-time Daytona 500 champion – finished 33rd Sunday.
Gordon wasn’t nostalgic about his final Daytona 500, though.
He admits he was “pretty happy, to be honest” that this is his last Daytona 500, especially after the chaos of the final laps.
“Other than being the winner here, everything else is not really what anybody wants to put themselves through,’’ Gordon said. “I can’t describe it. It’s pure madness.’’
Such is restrictor-plate racing, where drivers must shed self-doubt and be willing to bump and bang at 200 mph while hoping for the best.
Gordon, who lead a race-high 87 laps, made all the right moves until shortly after the halfway mark, and that proved costly.
He said a decision to restart on the high line ultimately was his undoing. Although he dominated the first half of the race, he chose his line based on who was behind him to push.
“We just didn’t go, and the inside lane went better,’’ Gordon said. “We got shuffled back and we just never recovered. After that, we were doing everything we could. We were between fifth and 10th and could never break through.’’
On the restart with 19 laps left, Gordon was seventh when spotter Eddie D’Hondt gave him a pep talk on the radio.
“Time to write this story,’’ D’Hondt said. “All the rest has been the preamble.’’
Instead, Gordon was shuffled to 11th. The bottom line started moving and he got to fifth with 15 laps to go. As the pack morphed, Gordon was in the middle lane but stuck.
He was ninth on the final restart. Gordon foretold his fate, saying on the radio that the bottom line needed to go on the restart or no one in that line would win.
“The bottom line was not as organized and then we stacked up in the middle,’’ he said. “I got a good run with Kasey Kahne up the middle and it was hairy. I knew there was a high potential of a wreck. I was just following him and … holding on tight to get through the corner. I think we maybe could have got [a] top five out of it and they … started wrecking or somebody hit me. I don’t know what happened.’’
Gordon was the last car to drive away from the crash scene. He slowly drove to the finish line to complete his race.
It wasn’t a win.
Consider it a farewell for this race.