Jeff Gordon’s last ride starts from Daytona 500 pole

Jeff Gordon, left,  and crew chief Ray Evernham spray champagne on the crowd after winning the 1999 Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway.
Jeff Gordon, left, and crew chief Ray Evernham spray champagne on the crowd after winning the 1999 Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway. Getty Images

Of all of Jeff Gordon’s accomplishments and accolades in his NASCAR career, there is one that stands out among the rest, particularly among his fellow competitors.

It’s the respect Gordon, 43, has from his peers for stepping away from the sport while he’s still on top.

Race car drivers historically have been hard to convince it’s time to retire. It’s even rarer for them to come to that realization on their own.

Gordon plans to leave full-time competition in the Sprint Cup Series at the end of this year. He’s approaching this season much like he arrived in the sport, with the same competitive zeal, talent and plans to win a championship – only this one would be his fifth.

Where does his journey begin?

On the pole for NASCAR’s most prestigious race, Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Sixteen years after winning his first 500 pole – which came with a victory in the race, by the way – the rewards are quite different, but just as special.

“The kids (daughter Ella Sophia and son Leo) weren’t down (in Daytona) with us over the weekend. And so when we got home, they had big billboards plastered on the door when I came in, and a cake and all this stuff,” Gordon said.

“So, it was very cool. They were very excited to make all those things and congratulate me and jump all over me.”

What has been more impressive is the respect shown by Gordon’s competitors in the past several weeks as his decision to step away and the naming of his replacement, Chase Elliott, was announced.

Remember, in Gordon’s 92 career Cup victories and four championship seasons, he’s beaten them all, and many more than once.

Carl Edwards’ entire NASCAR career has unfolded during the course of Gordon’s. What struck him most about Gordon’s decision to step away is how good Gordon still is as a competitor.

“People say, ‘He’s 43, he has a family he wants to spend more time with,’ but I look at him on the track and what he did this past season, having a chance to win the championship, and he’s still getting it done,” Edwards said.

The most difficult aspect for Edwards, 35, to comprehend is Gordon’s decision itself.

“I can’t imagine not racing. I was at the shop the other day and I still feel like a little kid in the sense that I can’t believe they’re going to let me drive this race car,” Edwards said.

“It’s so neat to get to do this and I don’t know many racers who can just not race anything. I guess I’ll always be racing something.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Gordon’s decision has left him at times reflecting more about his own age (40).

“It reminds you of how long you’ve been around, and it kind of makes you look at yourself in the mirror and realize how old you are. Makes me feel old, anyway,” Earnhardt said.

“It’s a crazy thing. You still see Jeff as this guy that could race another 10 years as competitive as he is – you don’t look at him and go, ‘Man, he’s old.’It’s ‘Look at Jeff, man, he’s been here so long.’

“It doesn’t feel like it.”

Thousands of miles of racing, including the wrecks, have taken a toll on Gordon’s body. He has dealt with back issues for several years and had a flare-up last May at Charlotte Motor Speedway that forced him to miss practice the day before the Coca-Cola 600.

The decision to step away, though, rested simply on wanting to go out on top, not necessarily with a championship – although that would be a storybook ending.

Gordon wants to leave fans with a final memory of him racing up front, battling for wins.

He remains intensely focused on doing what is necessary to keep his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports car competitive while also acknowledging the distractions that will come this season as fans and tracks celebrate his final year.

“When you are able to make this decision earlier rather than later, then I think that you can really be adamant about the focus on still being competitive and trying to win,” Gordon said.

“I mean I’ve got one of the best teams out there. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be competitive this year on a high level.”

Gordon sees no downside in coming into a season knowing he doesn’t have next year to rectify any mistakes or missed opportunities.

“That’s not ever a mindset I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s always like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you know, if this doesn’t go perfect, I got to wait until next year.’

“I don’t have to wait until next year. It’s just now. Take advantage of it, enjoy it.

“We’re on house money.”

And he’s still cashing in after all these years.

Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

Daytona 500

1 p.m. (FOX)

200 laps (500 miles)