LAS VEGAS – Jeff Gordon cried in his final appearance as a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver.
Martin Truex Jr. nearly did as well, but summoned the strength girlfriend Sherry Pollex has faced in battling ovarian cancer to tell the crowd at Wynn Las Vegas: “We’ve learned that life isn’t just about living, it’s about being alive.’’
Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch first thanked the doctors who reassembled his broken bones earlier this year and saved a special message at the end of his speech for wife Samantha that left her wiping her eyes, and trying to hold back tears.
This was not a typical NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards where the drone of thank yous, while necessary, proves numbing.
Yes, thanks were given, but this night felt so much different and that had nothing to do with Tom Cruise’s surprise cameo to introduce Gordon, his friend.
Gordon was brought to tears by Cruise’s appearance – “That messed me up, that got me good,’’ Gordon said. As they shared an extended embrace on stage, Cruise told Gordon: “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.’’
Gordon told Cruise: “Man, I wish I was an actor like you because I’m getting ready to struggle with this speech.’’
He did multiple times in his final act as a Sprint Cup driver. Gordon’s quivering voice halted as he talked about the end of “a fulfilling career.’’
He caught himself, sniffled and scrunched his face as he tried to restrain more tears. They returned when he thanked car owner Rick Hendrick and wife Linda. After saying their names, Gordon could only say “thank you so much” before he briefly broke down. Gordon had told Hendrick beforehand he would say little about his boss because he wouldn’t be able to get through the speech with all that he wanted to say. Same for Gordon’s family.
“When I speak, I speak with my heart,’’ Gordon said afterward. “When it’s speaking from my heart in a thankful way and appreciative way and I start to really go there in my mind, the river starts flowing.’’
Gordon held back the river but the tears were plentiful.
Kevin Harvick joked about having to follow Gordon’s speech, but Gordon had to follow Truex.
Truex ended his speech by talking about Pollex, who was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer in August 2014. That came as Truex was struggling in his first year at Furniture Row Racing. AS Pollex’s condition has improved, so did Truex’s fortunes on the track, leading to a spot in the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“The only advice I have for you tonight,’’ Truex told about 1,500 people in the ballroom and an NBCSN audience, “is to enjoy every moment, celebrate life, help others and never give up.’’
Then he looked at Pollex.
“Sherry, thank you for being in my life,’’ Truex said, his voice wavering. “You’re an inspiration, and I love you very much.’’
Gordon saw the emotion and said he thought: “I’m not going to be the only one (emotional).’’
Gordon admits that Truex “held it together far better than I could have ever.’’
Kyle Busch felt the emotions within him as he turned to his wife at the head table and thanked her at the end of his speech, moments after they cried while watching a video of the past season.
Their journey to this moment had been anything but easy. The struggles on the track most knew about. The issues with infertility had not until they revealed it after Samantha became pregnant. Three months before their long-coveted child was to be born, Busch suffered a broken right leg and fractured left foot in a crash in Daytona International Speedway. Suddenly, Samantha had to care for her injured husband.
He returned to racing days before son Brexton was born in May, beginning a remarkable journey that led to a Sprint Cup title.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t thank you for giving me the best gift life can give in our Brexton,’’ Busch said toward the end of his speech, as Samantha cried. “I love you.’’
Through tears, Samantha mouthed to her husband “I love you.’’