By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
HOLLYWOOD, Fla.—If the four men on the dais at the Diplomat Resort & Spa had been a vocal group, rather than the four Championship Round drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Jeff Gordon provided a ready name for the ensemble.
“He’s the favorite,” Gordon said, pointing at reigning series champion Kevin Harvick. “We’re the sentimentals. That’s all there is.”
The “we” in this case referred to Gordon, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., all of whom will be attempting to dethrone the champion when Kevin Harvick & the Sentimentals race for the title in the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).
Each of the “Sentimentals” has a story. Busch made the Chase after breaking his right leg and left foot in the Feb. 21 NASCAR XFINITY Series opener at Daytona, an injury that sidelined him for the first 11 Sprint Cup races of the season.
Truex drives for a single-car organization, Denver, Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing, and before this year has never been a contender for the title in NASCAR’s premier series.
But if there is a true sentimental favorite in Sunday’s decisive race, that honor goes to Gordon, hands down.
The Ecoboost 400 will be Gordon’s final race in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the seat he has occupied for an iron-man record 796 consecutive events dating to the 1992 season finale.
The prospect of Gordon leaving the driver’s seat for the FOX Sports broadcast booth at season’s end already has conjured images of other rare athletes who have retired while at the pinnacle of their respective sports.
It’s a short list. Super Bowl champs John Elway and Jerome Bettis come to mind. So do Rocky Marciano, who retired as undefeated heavyweight boxing champion in 1956, and Byron Nelson, who left full-time competitive golf at age 34 after accumulating enough money to buy the Texas ranch he had always wanted.
Arguably, a Gordon championship would be a bigger story than those of his predecessors, because of the name-recognition he has earned as an ambassador for NASCAR racing for more than two decades.
But don’t think for a minute that Gordon will be satisfied simply to make the Championship Round and race for the title. Sentimental favorite or not, he wants to win it.
“If I could have scripted this thing in January or February, I don’t think I could have scripted it quite the way it’s going,” Gordon said on Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day at the Diplomat. “I never dreamed that we could have an opportunity to be battling for the championship in my final race.
“Is there pressure? I mean, I feel like there’s always pressure. By winning that race in Martinsville (Nov. 1) and putting us in this elite group, I mean, that right there just was an incredible moment and something I’ll never forget. And knowing that we were just going to come down here and be a part of that four, that right there in itself is a win.”
Clearly, though, Gordon hopes there’s another, more significant win on the horizon. And those who might discount his chances should remember that Hendrick Motorsports cars won all three of the races in the Chase’s Eliminator Round, which concluded last Sunday at Phoenix.
“If you don’t think that our team is working extremely hard and very focused and determined to be a real factor in this thing on Sunday, then you’re mistaken,” Gordon said. “And so that part certainly puts pressure on.
“I mean, I think, yeah, there’s a ton of pressure taken off all of us because we’re just a part of it, and we know that we can’t be worse than fourth when this thing is all over. But at the same time, there’s definitely pressure because we all want it. We all want it really badly.”
Gordon is 44, far older than the prime for athletes in most other major sports. In his retirement, he’ll have more opportunity to enjoy time with wife Ingrid, daughter Ella and son Leo. But Gordon also realizes that, because of his family, a championship this season might well be the most important accomplishment of his career.
“This one is so much different because (of) my final year, my final race, Ingrid and the kids,” Gordon said. “Kids motivate you in a whole new way, and no matter what, we’re going to go out and be happy and celebrate.
“But to do it as a champion, oh, my gosh, I just can’t imagine anything that would be more emotional and more exciting and more gratifying than to look at my wife in the eyes and see that reaction from her when that race is over—if we win it.”
Image: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway