Just a few days into his final Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, Jeff Gordon said he is already beginning to realize the realities associated with stepping away from his Hall Of Fame-caliber career.
“All of a sudden, extended family and friends (are saying), “Oh, I haven't been to a race. I better go this year. There has been some planning, trying to coordinate that and do it in a way that is least disruptive to my routine at the track.
“I want them to be there, I want them to enjoy it and I want to have fun with them after the race is over. But prior to that, I want to stay focused and do my thing, because I've got a great team with a great opportunity to win a lot of races and a championship this year.
“I don't want to take that for granted. I want to go out on top, so I'm doing all I can to stay focused on that.
Gordon said he has asked race promoters to allow him the space to focus on his driving, “just expressing to them how important it is to be competitive this year. I don't want to be completely naïve,” he admitted. “I know there's going to be a lot on my plate this year, so, I'm going to put a lot of pressure on my team. It's definitely been very hectic leading into today, but it's going smooth.”
Gordon said he is humbled to hear young drivers speak of the role he played in opening doors for them in the sport.
“It's been an overwhelming experience,” he said. “I've had (this) decision coming for a long time, so it's not like it was new to me. But when you finally make it public and get the reaction back, the reactions that I saw were really humbling. It's very cool to see people that you compete against say those kind of things about you. Or maybe even fans that aren't necessarily fans of yours. So that's pretty cool. It's been awesome.
“When I think back -- and maybe it's just my way of looking at it -- I was one of 100 different things that were going on in the sport at that time. (There) were good decisions, good choices and good things happening. That really contributed to the sport growing at a fast rate and giving people opportunities.
“I look back and think, `Ricky Rudd was really young when he came along, so I'm not the only guy.’ Ken Schrader was an open wheel driver, (but) the difference is that I was one of the first Open Wheel young guys to come along and win a championship.
“In the past it was always, `Okay, if we put a young guy in (our car), it's going to take a long time to get him to be a championship-caliber driver. So, I will certainly take a lot of pride in that aspect of it.
Gordon said he looks forward to mentoring his HMS teammate – and 2016 replacement in the No. 24 Chevrolet -- Chase Elliott as the season progresses.
“None of that has happened yet,” he said. “I look forward to that process. I spoke to him several times in Victory Lane congratulating him on wins last year, but as far as my interaction with him for the Cup series, that's still yet to come.
“I was very excited to talk to him about the announcement that he would be driving the 24 car in the future and we had a great conversation. I told him that I look forward to us spending a lot of time together. It was very obvious there's a lot of mutual respect that went back and forth and that, to me, is the beginning of what can be some great talks and mentoring in the future.
“A guy like Kyle Larson has been catapulted into this Sprint Cup Series at a high level and has got a lot of talent. (But) you can't prepare for what it's like to be famous, to do autographs, to take pictures, to win at the highest level. You don't know what that's going to be like.
“But a guy like Chase can, because his dad can give him that experience, or at least talked him through it to (teach) what it really was like. That's extremely valuable and has played a big role in his success to this point. It will play a big role in the future.”
Asked how he would like to be remembered by fans, Gordon said, “you want them to recognize your ability in the race car, as being above most or at a high level. You want to be respected as a competitor and (for) the way you went about it, how much passion you had for it and how good you were at what you did. That's what I would want, first and foremost.
“I can't think of anything better than to end this season as the champion, to win Homestead and be the champion. Oh my gosh, I would be celebrating for a month.”