Scott Fowler

As Jeff Gordon approaches final lap, he answers 5 questions

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon prepared for practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October. Gordon, 44, has three weeks left in his career as a full-time NASCAR driver.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon prepared for practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October. Gordon, 44, has three weeks left in his career as a full-time NASCAR driver. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Jeff Gordon, 44, is three weeks away from concluding his full-time NASCAR driving career. And he has a chance of bringing it to an amazing close.

Gordon barely made the 16-driver playoffs, but now he has survived two rounds of elimination and qualified for the Chase’s final eight. Always good at Homestead, where the season finishes on Nov. 22, Gordon will have a good shot at a fifth title if he can survive the next round of cuts and make it into the final four. On Tuesday, we met at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and I asked Gordon five questions.

Q. If you had filled out a Chase championship grid, slicing the original 16 teams in the playoffs down to eight, would you have penciled yourself in as one of the drivers who are left?

A. Just because I believe in our team and what we are capable of doing, I would have.

But from the outside looking in, I wouldn’t have felt we would have continued to advance because of the way we barely made it in. We didn’t show a lot of strength.

Q. Now you’re going into a three-race round where you’ve won at Martinsville eight times in your career and had some success at the other two tracks, too. What do you think of you chances of surviving the cut from eight drivers to four?

A. This round offers us a lot of opportunities. We’ve been able to fight as hard as we can and get to this point. Anything is possible.

Q. It would be a storybook ending if you won at Homestead for your fifth overall Cup title and then rode off into the sunset with your family. Do you allow yourself to think that far ahead?

A. No, not yet. There’s too much work to be done first. We’re fully focused on that.

Of course, no matter what, Homestead is going to be emotional. But if we can get ourselves in that position, it would be good in a way because it would take my focus off the fact that was my last race because I would be so focused on trying to win the championship. So I hope that’s a problem that we have.

Q. You said at the beginning of the season you didn’t want everyone giving you a lot of gifts as you came to each track, that you wanted to focus on the racing. But people have not been able to obey that rule. How have you been able to compartmentalize nostalgia vs. right now?

A. Just the way my brain works, I feel like I’ve just been so focused on the performance. And we haven’t been performing. So midway through the season the intensity was ramping up because the potential of being in the Chase was slipping away and the potential to win was slipping away.

I really had to block out a lot of things around me. But I will say the greatest part of this year – up until when the Chase started going well – has been the interaction with the fans and the things that the tracks have done. ... Like Bristol. I’m so proud to have a terrace named after me.

For years I’ve been coming to tracks and seeing Pearson and Petty and Waltrip and Yarborough and Allison, those names around these racetracks. It was like, ‘Wow, what do you have to do to make it to that level?’ For Bristol to be one of the first to take that step, it meant a lot to me. Especially because it’s one of my favorite tracks.

Q. Obviously, you can still do this at a high level. Any regrets that you are about to retire as a full-time driver?

A. No. You’ve got to understand, I’ve been contemplating it for years. I think my kids and (team owner) Rick Hendrick, they motivated me to do it longer than I was even anticipating. That was because of my back and experiencing a lot of pain. I didn’t know if that was contributing to the lack of performance for some of those years, and so I contemplated it.

When my kids started getting a little older, I realized I wanted them to experience what it’s like to see what Dad does, and to do it at a high level. And of course Rick was saying ‘OK, you can’t quit yet, we still have more work to do.’

And so that motivated me. But I’m very content with the decision and the timing of it. I feel very pleased with how it’s going. 

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