Jeff Gordon ended up with a goodbye party instead of a championship celebration.
Gordon failed to add a fairytale ending to his storied career Sunday, finishing sixth in the NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But it did little to dampen the four-time NASCAR champion’s day, which was filled with family, friends and farewell tributes.
“There’s no doubt that just being a part of this day, wrapping up this amazing career, there’s no doubt in my mind that it didn’t take the championship for me to come out of here feeling like I’m on top of the world, and I am,” Gordon said. “I just can’t help the competitor in me still is cutting into that slightly right now.
“But I’ll loosen up and I’ll be fine a little bit later.”
Gordon had a huge party planned no matter the outcome, with about 400 people ready to throw down into the wee hours on South Beach.
“Well, we all know nothing would have been quite better than that and the win,” Gordon said. “But I’ve learned a lot in life, and there’s no such thing as a perfect day and a perfect life. Just like there’s no such thing as a perfect race car. They’re really close and good, and at times, better than the rest. But it doesn’t mean that they’re ever perfect.
“Had I won this race and this championship, it would have been perfect, and I don’t think I could have accepted that. I wouldn’t have known how to.”
He handled the day as well as anyone could have expected. Gordon was the overwhelming sentimental favorite from the start, and it showed.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne as well as fellow drivers Danica Patrick and Kyle Larson wore Gordon tribute hats before the finale. Patrick wore one with old-school “rainbow warriors” colors.
Joey Logano posted a picture of him and Gordon on Facebook that showed them sharing a moment when Logano was little.
“You were my idol growing up,” Logano wrote. “Never did I think I’d race against you for wins. Congrats on a great career Jeff Gordon.”
Harvick got a modern-day keepsake when he stopped by Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet — which got a police escort to pit road — and posed for a photo.
NASCAR presented Gordon with a tribute video during the pre-race drivers’ meeting and then everyone in the room, including drivers, sponsors and dignitaries, gave him a standing ovation.
“Jeff, congratulations on an outstanding career. We thank you for all you’ve done for NASCAR and will do,” NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton said. “You’re a true champion and a top-shelf guy.”
Fans lined a red carpet leading to the meeting and showered Gordon with praise. Gordon responded by high-fiving scores of them.
The 44-year-old Gordon announced in January that this would be his last season. He won 93 races in 23 full seasons. He wanted one more — which would have been bigger than the rest.
He hopes to remember all the details of his finale, including visits from racing legend Mario Andretti, three-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and sports-car ace Scott Pruett. Gordon made sure his colleagues won’t forget it.
To commemorate the race, Gordon gave each driver in the finale a carbon-fiber ring box inscribed with “Thanks For The Memories” and his or her starting position.
Richard Petty did something similar before the 1992 season finale in Atlanta. Petty gave each driver in that race, including Gordon, a “Petty blue” money clip. Gordon kept it in a drawer and then a safe all these years.
“I just wanted everybody to have something as an appreciation from me to them of what they meant to me racing against them over all the years,” Gordon said. “Seemed like they appreciated it.”
On Saturday, Petty gave Gordon $93 to put in the money clip and told him he had one more dollar ready for him should he win the finale.
It didn’t happen, mostly because Gordon fought an ill-handling race car all afternoon. When it was over, Gordon thanked his crew and team owner Rick Hendrick over the team radio and then made his final turn down pit road.
“It’s like right now the racing doesn’t matter as much as the relationship does,” Hendrick said. “I’d have loved to have won it, loved to have seen him go out with a championship, but we went out in the top four and not many guys do better than that.”
Gordon climbed out of his race car and stepped into Hendrick’s waiting arms.
They shared a long embrace and some words of encouragement. Gordon handed Hendrick his one-off helmet, kissed his wife and hugged his two kids before getting mobbed by fans. Someone in the crowd screamed “You’re still the man!”
Just not the champion.
“I’m a little disappointed we weren’t more of a threat in the championship,” said Gordon, who last won it all in 2001. “Beyond that, it’s absolutely been a dream come true.”