HOMESTEAD, Fla. – On one of the biggest days of his life, a boy sought his mother’s comfort.
Jeff Gordon had planned to sleep in Sunday, but the excitement of his final Sprint Cup race and the chance to win a fifth series championship awoke him early. When he pulled the shades up in his motorhome, he saw his mother walk by.
To many, Jeff Gordon is one of NASCAR’s greatest racers, someone as fierce behind the wheel as he is kind in public. So revered, racing royalty – Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton – were at Homestead-Miami Speedway to watch Gordon’s final ride and former President Bill Clinton wished him good luck on Twitter.
To Carol Bickford, though, he is Jeffrey Michael Gordon, the boy who dreamed of racing and excelled in ways few had. No matter what he does, Gordon will be always be her youngest child.
On a day that ended with Gordon finishing sixth and Kyle Busch winning the championship, it started with mother and son together.
And the son crying – “boohooing as loud as a person can boohoo,’’ Gordon said.
He thanked his mother for her support, thanked her for believing and thanked her for all that she and his stepfather had done throughout his life to get to this moment, to get to where Gordon could retire on his own terms and go out with the dignity of a driver running for a championship in his final race instead of just filling the field.
And the tears flowed.
Gordon said his mother remained strong while he cried.
“I think she was wanting me to not lose control, so she was trying to be the stronger person, but I didn’t care, I was like, I want to get it out right now before I walk out of this bus,’’ Gordon said. “There was tears pouring down my face.’’
They reminisced. Then Gordon the child told his mother about the crowd that surrounded him as he walked from his hauler to his car before Saturday’s final practice. He was struck by the crowd and the fans who chanted his name, similar to what fans did three weeks ago after he won at Martinsville Speedway for his 93rd and final series win. He responded that night by running into the crowd to high-five those who remained in the dark an hour after he won.
Sunday night, he ran into a fan who has been following him for 20 years and who has a full back tattoo of Gordon’s car – “that is commitment,’’ Gordon said. Gordon invited the fan to watch Gordon’s press conference.
Gordon has embraced the end of his Sprint Cup career as he has embraced the fans even more this season.
It makes the disappointment of not winning the race and the title more acceptable.
“Today is pure joy that he’s actually going out like this,’’ Gordon’s wife, Ingrid Vandebosch said. “He’s a champion, no matter what.’’
She arrived at his car after the race and embraced him, telling her husband that he “did a great job and I love you and (the result) doesn’t matter right now.’’
Gordon’s first embrace after he exited the car for the final time was with car owner Rick Hendrick. They hugged three times.
“He said I love you and I said I love you,’’ Hendrick said. “It’s a relationship that I can’t explain. Never an argument, always a handshake. How can you do it any better than that?”
Then Gordon told Hendrick he wanted him to have his final helmet.
Since 1992, they have been together. Now it is ending.
“It’s real now,’’ Hendrick said, holding Gordon’s helmet. “Until right now and he got out of the car and gave me his helmet … it’s real, it’s over. Until right now it wasn’t over.’’
Gordon’s bid for a championship made it easy for those close to him to put off that this would be his last race but the community understood.
Drivers tweeted their appreciation. Reigning champion Kevin Harvick, who talked about his respect for Gordon earlier this week, had his picture taken kneeling next to Gordon’s car before the race.
Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson wore Gordon hats. A short video tribute to Gordon was played during the driver’s meeting, and his competitors gave him a 20-second standing ovation.
“That sendoff at the drivers’ meeting … just doesn’t happen like that very often, and I really, really appreciate it very, very much,’’ Gordon said.
Gordon gave back to fans and showed his competitors a glimpse of what was so common in the 1990s – him in front of the field. He led nine laps early.
“I kind of got excited and got my hopes up there, but then Kevin started coming on pretty strong, and then we had that restart, and I knew when those guys got by me I just didn’t quite have what they had. I was just lacking a couple little things.’’
His car’s handling didn’t improve and it became apparent that unless something dramatic happened, Gordon would not win the title.
That’s OK, he has a greater role to devote his time to now – that of father. Ella is 8, and Leo is 5. Ella understands this was papa’s last race; Leo doesn’t. But papa will be around more often for them now.
“I hope they realize that one of the reasons I’m doing it is to spend more time with them,’’ Gordon said earlier this week about retiring.
A parent spending time with their children.
Just as a boy spent time with his mother Sunday, crying and thanking her.