By Andrew Lawrence
January 22, 2015

For most, retirement is a celebration. To Jeff Gordon, it has always been a slur. He called it “the R-word,” and that was on the rare occasion that he even entertained the idea at all. Ask him to use the R-word in a sentence and he’d change the subject faster than his pit crew could swap the rims on his Chevy.

On Thursday, Gordon was still in self-censorship mode, even as he announced that this season, his 23rd in Sprint Cup, would be his last racing a full-time schedule. In an afternoon conference call with reporters, the 43-year-old driver simply said he was taking a “step away.” Whatever the language, it’s going to require an adjustment from Hendrick Motorsports, the team where Gordon has spent his entire career and won four series championships. But that’ll seem minor compared to tuning task ahead of NASCAR.

Gordon, after all, was the driver who lifted stock car racing into the mainstream and made it a huge deal. His backstory, about the boy racer who was so good that California effectively made it illegal for him to embarrass adults, seemed like a work of fiction. And when he went on to spurn open-wheel racing for the Cup circuit in the early-90s, at age 20, he became a different kind of character.

This was inevitable. He looked like he belonged on Friends, talked like belonged on Full House, and carried himself as if he belonged on Star Trek: The Next Generation. So of course Gordon would go on to host Saturday Night Live and guest star on The Simpsons after he started winning races in bulk. Heck, not even Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s perennial prom king, has done that.

If there’s anything astonishing about Gordon, it’s that NASCAR Nation, that once proud southeastern red state, once found him genuinely offensive and heckled him mercilessly for being, well, successful. And this, mind you, was before rappers were name-checking the Rainbow Warrior in their songs. (“Maybe Nelly helped him with that,” crew chief Alan Gustafson told in May, referring to Nelly's song E.I., which includes the line "I drive fastly, call me Jeff Gordon.") Guess time killed all haters.

Now, no one boos Gordon when he shows up at the track or, on one memorable occasion during the Chase, grabs himself a fistful of Brad Keselowski. The northern heel has become a national hero. That’s not an easy thing to do in this or any sport, especially after going through a contentious divorce in public and battling a chronic back injury. Nor, for that matter, is replacing a legend like that.

But that’s not to say there’s a lack of worthy candidates. Two of the best, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, are already parked inside the Hendrick garage. Prefer to go younger? Well, look no further than Kyle Larson (the 22-year-old Sprint Cup rookie of the year) and Chase Elliott (the 18-year-old winner of the Nationwide series and Gordon’s presumptive successor in the No. 24 car). It's no coincidence that both owe their early starts on the grid to a bemulletted, mustachioed gentleman from Bay Area by way of Indiana.

“I mean, how many of the drivers that are here today would never have had the opportunity if Jeff Gordon didn’t blaze a trail at such a young age from a different series?” said owner Rick Hendrick.

Each driver brings a different set of strengths to this soon-to-be vacated ambassadorial position. Junior is beloved, Johnson is a winner and the two young adults have oodles of promise. If any of the drivers have a flaw, it’s that they can’t be all of these things at once.

That’s where Gordon separates himself. He brings heft to racing. More of it than Richard Petty, who leads Gordon on the all-time wins list 200 to 92. More of it than Dale Earnhardt Sr., who achieved mainstream stardom posthumously. During his Koufax years, when the victories rolled in nine at a time from 1995 through ’99, Gordon could even sucker the casual fan into watching him turn a few lefts. It’s a knack that recalls a certain golfer. “Look at Tiger Woods,” Ray Evernham, Gordon’s former crew chief, told in May. “He gets divorced, hurts his back -- and all of a sudden, he’s not the same guy. It takes a special person to re-rack and readjust and get that universe in order and continue. Jeff Gordon is one of those people.”

It’s why even in the winter of his Cup career, Gordon was still fast enough to lull fans into thinking it’d be a few more decades before the goodbye party planning began in earnest. The send-off he’s likely to receive this season at tracks across the country could make Derek Jeter’s carefully choreographed farewell tour look like a last-minute plan.

What’s more, fans won’t have to act surprised when Gordon performs well. He’s coming off his finest season in a decade, one that saw him notch four wins, top the drivers standings for most of the year, and come a Keselowski collision short of racing for a fifth title at Homestead. If the postseason format had never been implemented, Gordon might well be chasing an eighth crown. Either way, he’ll be a major contender again in ’15. Capturing his first Chase-era title on the way out would rival John Elway’s Super Bowl XXXIII title for showmanship.

That a mid-season lumbar ailment could be the catalyst for Gordon’s pseudo-comeback couldn’t be more ironic. What’s a more ageist ailment than a bad back? “I've always felt that race car drivers, their careers go well into their 40s,” his mother, Carol Bickford, told in May. “So I hadn't even really thought about him retiring.”

The injury, which Gordon described to SI as being “almost like a shot,” was the culmination of a lifetime bouncing over rough roads, whipping around bends and two and three times the force of gravity, and the many body punishing crashes in between. The suffering that insured was somewhat alleviated by a cortisone injection and a regular pre-race stretching routine, but not enough to make Gordon reconsider the directive he had been giving Hendrick, his stepfather, John Bickford, and his wife, Ingrid, for the past few years. It more or less boiled down to: Activate the exit strategy.

And again, just to be clear, that plan does not -- repeat -- does not include the R-word, though Gordon doesn't seem to find it as dirty he once did. Never mind that he couldn’t be better positioned to embrace the word, what with $146 million and counting in career Cup earnings and an endorsement portfolio that features a robust mix of brands youth-oriented (Pepsi Max) and not (the AARP). “The way I see myself in the world, retirement means you go off to a beach somewhere and sit in a rocking chair on the front porch and drink your coffee and pet your dog,” he explained. “That’s not me. I plan on working. I’m going to be working. I’m actually going to have to get a real job now.”

Gordon won’t lack for post-Cup career options, mostly because he’s been pursuing them for years. There’s the vineyard back in Cali, the pediatric cancer foundation in Charlotte and the budding collaboration with the Clinton Global Initiative, which has been working to address an overlooked cancer problem in Rwanda. It’s rather impressive that Gordon can summon the concentration to race with all these side projects rattling around his helmet.

“This,” Gustafson said while sweeping a hand across the No. 24 hauler, “is his happy place.”

Gordon will still be a regular presence at the track after this season, but as a partner at Hendrick Motorsports. The arrangement was struck when Gordon signed a lifetime deal with the company in the fall of 1999, a bargain that netted him a partial ownership stake in Johnson’s car. Gordon looks forward to working more closely with Hendrick on overall strategy for the race teams, to engaging more deeply with sponsors and to taking on a more active role as a talent scout.

There’s no doubt he has an eye for up-and-comers. Johnson, Larson and Elliott are all drivers he spotted back when they were minor. But finding another pilot for the No. 24 car won’t be easy. That’s a big seat to fill.

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