Few can appreciate the pain that Jeff Gordon gutted out to extend his NASCAR career than Rick Hendrick, and it’s not just because he owns Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet.
“I’ve had back problems, and we go to the same therapist, and the same doctor, and I don’t know how he did it,” Hendrick told NASCAR Talk. “I don’t know how he got in that car at the (2014 Coca-Cola 600). But I felt like I’d always say, ‘Jeff, just do it one more year, one more year.’
“But I’m so glad he did because now he’s in the final four, and he deserves to go out that way. Not as just a guy who rode around. He’s making his final race running for the championship, and I think it’s a super story for NASCAR and for him and for his legacy.”
Gordon has been battling an aching back for more than five years, sometimes alleviating his pain through injections and physical therapy. The four-time champion was forced out of practice for the 2014 Coca-Cola 600 but toughed out a seventh the following day in the longest race on the NASCAR schedule.
After qualifying for the championship finale in Miami with his Nov. 1 victory at Martinsville Speedway, he said in an interview on The Dan Patrick Show that he had mulled retirement for years, and it made it easier to be at peace with his announcement in January that the 2015 season would be his last.
“I guess if I had just started thinking about this last year and then made the decision this year to (retire), I might be second-guessing it, but this thought has been going on in my mind for the last five or six years,” Gordon said. “I don’t know if it was Tom Brady or someone else that said one time, ‘The moment you start thinking about retirement and you start thinking about, ‘Should I make a change? Is it time?’ then your days are numbered.
“You are just not the same competitor, and that’s what worried me when I first started thinking about that because it had to do with my back and competitive level. So luckily I had between my family and Rick Hendrick and some others that talked me into, ‘No, no. It’s not the right time. You need to stick with it a little longer.’ I’m glad that I did, but everything started adding up and this year definitely it’s the right time.”
Hendrick said he could tell Gordon often was “on the fence” about retiring the past few years.
“Every bad day or a day after therapy, he’d say, ‘This is probably time,’” Hendrick said. “And I’d say, ‘Are you sure? Let’s try one more year.’ (The 2014 season) was an awesome year for him. He led a lot of laps, and it kind of rejuvenated him. I’m glad it did. I’m glad he did. And hopefully we can go make it really special at Homestead.”
If Gordon can finish ahead of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he will earn his fifth championship in NASCAR’s premier series and first since 2001.
His recent record at the 1.5-mile oval is strong. Gordon scored his first win in Miami in 2012 and led a race-high 161 laps in his No. 24 Chevrolet last season one week after being eliminated by a point after the third round of the playoffs.
Gordon started from the pole position at Miami last year and was in first with 15 laps remaining before staying on track during a caution. Harvick was one of several who pitted, winning the race and the title.
“If we’d been racing for championship, we’d have run that race differently,” Hendrick said. “Honey and nuts and ifs and buts, but if I was Jeff Gordon, and I was that close to getting it done last year, I’d have been super disappointed. It’s tough when you know you’re in the twilight. He might have even moved (retirement) up a year.”