Jeff Gordon has made NASCAR's Chase for the Cup 11 of 12 times since the Cup Chase format was introduced in 2004. But this will be Gordon’s final go-round. In January, he announced that the 2015 NASCAR season would be his last as a full-time driver. He joined Bill to reflect upon his career.
BL: Your place in this year's Chase for the Cup was not secure until the last qualifying race at Richmond. How disappointed would you have been if you had not earned one more shot at the title?
JG: Yeah, that would have been disappointing. You know, I made the decision for this to be my final year knowing that, you know, last year we had a fantastic year and went all the way down towards the end of the season, even though we didn't win the championship. I feel pretty confident we could be competitive again this year. And it's been a struggle. It's been a challenge. You know, it was certainly a big relief to know we were in the Chase, and we have a shot at the championship.
BL: You know, in some sports, athletes on their farewell tours are shown preferential treatment, even during competition. But I gather other drivers were not pulling over and getting out of your way?
JG: No, definitely not. Haven't seen any of that. Maybe that's yet to come, but that's definitely not what I'm seeing. I think that you got to earn everything in this sport. And even in my final season, heck who knows, there might be some guys who still have some payback out there for me.
BL: You and I first spoke in the late 90s. And at that time you were racking up NASCAR wins and titles, but it seemed that a lot of NASCAR’s fans had not really come around to accepting you the way they had many other NASCAR stars. Did you ever figure out why that was?
JG: Well, the most popular guy in the sport at that time was Dale Earnhardt Sr. And he was the guy we were battling against for championships. I wasn't from North Carolina or the Southeast. I came from California, came through the open-wheel ranks, so I was a bit of an outsider when I got there, and I was probably young and arrogant as well. So it took many, many years to get the support that I certainly have today.
BL: I assume by now that it's time to say goodbye, you probably feel pretty well supported?
JG: This year especially has been tremendous. To interact with the fans and see the signs that they brought to the races — you know, we're going to miss you, and it's not going to be the same without you and so on — it's been extremely gratifying, and it's put a big smile on my face.
BL: When you and I spoke before, NASCAR was growing faster than, well, faster than Jeff Gordon at the Daytona 500. But that growth slowed a bit the following decade. How are you feeling about the sport’s future?
JG: Yeah, you know, I think a lot of people were impacted by everything that went on in the economy in 2008, so it's been a challenge. I think it's still an amazing sport, and we have a tremendous fan following. And I think the racing is still spectacular, and there's still great value for the sponsors. I'm looking forward to the future when I'm not behind the wheel — of really looking at the sport from the outside, and I'll be doing some broadcasting next year for Fox as well as being involved with Hendrick Motorsports on the business side of things. And I love the sport and think it deserves to continue to grow.
BL: You have said you're going to retire as a full-time driver. Does that mean you will still pick and choose a few races to compete in?
JG: I don't have any plans to do that. But I did want to leave that door open just in case.
BL: What do you think you'll miss most about being on the NASCAR circuit full-time?
JG: I don't know anything any different. I've been doing this for so long. What got me into racing and what I fell in love with from the beginning is the same thing that I love today. It's just that effort that you and your team put together to get yourself to victory lane. You know, you get that checkered flag and celebrate that together as a team. It's hard to top that, so I don't know if I'll ever be able to replace that. But I'm going to try to take that same approach into the TV booth or, you know, when I'm involved with Hendrick Motorsports behind the scenes. I'm really looking forward to spending more time with my young kids and spending more time with my wife away from the race track.
BL: Last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, you tied Rickey Rudd’s record of 788 consecutive starts. When you start this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, you will have broken that record. Your streak began in 1992. You’re kinda like the Cal Ripken, Jr. of the racing world.
JG: Yeah, somebody called me the "Iron Man" the other day — I think it was actually Matt Kenseth. He was sort of smiling when he said it. But those are words that I never thought would be associated with me. It's just, I always thought of myself as the young kid and being the veteran is just something that I never really pictured or thought about. So it's a great accomplishment — something I'm really proud of, you know. I think it speaks volumes about how passionate I am about the sport of racing and my commitment to it.
This segment aired on September 26, 2015.