Jeff Gordon heads into final race at Daytona having come full circle

Jeff Gordon heads into final race at Daytona having come full circle
Jeff Gordon heads to his garage during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session at Daytona International Speedway on Friday. (Terry Renna / AP)

With security guards watching for suspicious activity, Dave Shepherd had some explaining to do Friday. What was the contraption bulging out of his backpack?

"A piece of a dashboard from my Jeff Gordon Monte Carlo," he said.


That put him one up on most fans gathering for Sunday's Coke Zero 400. Many of them want a piece of Gordon, who will be running his final race at Daytona International Speedway.

Shepherd brought his piece with him. He pried it out of his Gordon edition Chevrolet, put it in his suitcase and flew in from Saskatchewan, Canada.

"It's my first time down here, my first race, my first everything," he said. "But it's his retirement year, so I had to get to at least one race."

Shepherd's goals are to watch Gordon win and somehow get him to autograph that dashboard piece, though not necessarily in that order. For tens of thousands of other fans, a win by the No. 24 car would be satisfying enough.

A lot of them posed for photos with a surplus No. 24 car on Friday. It was parked at a Gordon Memorial of sorts in the infield, right next to a big sign that lists the driver's feats at Daytona and relevant photos.

"Jeff, Thank You For The Memories," it reads.

He's gone from a rookie with a pencil-thin mustache and mullet hairdo in 1992 to a graying racing icon. And at some point after Sunday night, he will be gone.

It makes for a bittersweet twist to this weekend's racing. Back in those mullet days, a lot of people couldn't stand Gordon. They were easy to identify by the No. 3 T-shirts they were wearing.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the polar opposite of the California kid. He was from Kannapolis, N.C. — NASCAR country — and epitomized the gritty, rough-edged racer in his black Chevrolet.

There were no tobacco stains on Gordon's teeth or blemishes on his rainbow-colored DuPont car. He was handsome, well-spoken and Madison Avenue friendly.

The culture-shift rivalry was so natural it seemed almost scripted by NASCAR. Gordon's first Winston Cup race was Richard Petty's last one.

"He was the right man for the right time, right personality," Petty said. "A heck of a lot of ability, and he carried our sport."

Gordon ushered in a new generation of fans and drivers. Denny Hamlin still has his Jeff Gordon Fan Club card from 1993. Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson was born a year before that.

"The DuPont car was one you always remembered," he said.


Gordon drove it to titles in 1994, 1997,1999 and 2001. He had 55 wins before he turned 30 and seemed headed for 150 before retirement.

The second half of Gordon's career wasn't as successful as the first. His protege Jimmie Johnson became the dominant driver. Gordon eased into an elder statesman role, giving millions of dollars to charity and promoting the sport just by being himself.

He still won four races in 2014 and rolls into the Coke Zero 400 with 92 career wins. Between the July races and February's Daytona 500, Gordon has six wins at the track.

But it's restrictor-plate racing, where the field is leveled and winning often comes down to final-lap luck. Gordon hasn't won this season, and the 43-year-old doesn't sound confident Sunday's race will break the drought.

"I would say it's one of my worst chances," Gordon said.

A win would certainly be a made-for-NBC happy ending at Daytona. But Gordon could finish last and still leave Daytona a hero.

If anyone still needs proof, all they have to do is check Shepherd's backpack.