Jeff Gordon overwhelmed by celebratory send-off

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- On Sunday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the morning of his 797th and final NASCAR start, Jeff Gordon opened the window of his motor coach and there was a familiar sight. It was his mother, Carol Bickford, up early and on the move as most grandmothers are.

For three days in South Florida, the days leading up to the season finale, the four-time Cup series champion had been surrounded everywhere he went, hidden within a foot-shuffling circle of fans, friends and photographers. He knew that once he stepped out of his RV on this morning, the crush would start again. So he motioned to his mother for her to come aboard.

The shot at a walk-off championship, a 1-in-4 opportunity thanks to NASCAR's still-new postseason format, was still hours away, more hours than they'd originally thought, thanks to an afternoon rain shower.

But before all of that, for a beautifully quiet hour, mother and son talked. They laughed about the road that had brought them to this day, perhaps his last as a race car driver. When he was barely a year old, Carol met a man at work, a hospital supply company. His name was John Bickford, and for his first date with Carol, he took her and her two small children, Jeff and big sister Kim, to a local short track to watch some racing in Northern California. A couple of years later, John and Carol were married. Shortly after that, Bickford bought his stepkids a pair of quarter-midget racers.

From that day to this morning, the kid became a living legend. Now he's the father of two and buying quarter midgets for his kids. Whenever the legend and his mom allow themselves a moment like this one, a pause to sit and reflect and try to make sense of it all, they always laughed. So Sunday morning, they laughed some more. They hugged. They cried a little. Actually, she cried a little. Gordon cried a lot. He sobbed. Then they opened the door of his home on wheels and opened the door on the next chapter of their lives.

Waiting on the outside of that door was a beautifully busy day. Some of it was routine. There was glad-handing with sponsors and hospitality appearances. Most of it was not. It was a daylong episode of "This Is Your Life." There were people who Gordon hadn't seen in years, from short-track rivals and former Rainbow Warrior pit crew members to former crew chief Ray Evernham and even former NFL stars asking for selfies.

And there were hugs. A lot of hugs.

Mario Andretti showed up for no reason other than to see Gordon's sendoff. Same for three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, former Hendrick motorsports teammate Ken Schrader and Gordon's personal escort during the prerace ceremonies -- three-time and reigning Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, a friend since the two met at the Super Bowl two years ago. That night, Gordon told Hamilton he was a fan and Hamilton told Gordon he'd been a fan for years.

"I wouldn't miss this," Hamilton said prior to the race, amused at the comments from the Gordon fans around him, debating which famous rapper the handsome black Brit might be. "Jeff's been a friend for a while now. He's a racer that drivers of my generation, all over the world, admired as we grew up."

The F1 champ said that while walking a crowded pit road, but only on one end. NASCAR stars who were normally covered up with admirers and media found themselves downright lonely, standing only with their crews. Even the three racers whom Gordon was racing for the title -- Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. -- found themselves in relative isolation.

As Gordon joined his family alongside his iconic No. 24 Chevy, they stood in a forest of boom mics and selfie sticks. "This is fun, man!" the 44-year old shouted from inside the throng, attempting to line up his final crew for one last team photo. "People keep asking me if I'm ready to get this day behind me. I don't want it to end!"

A little over three hours later, he emerged from that same car, drenched in sweat and surrounded by those same cameras and eventually that same crew. The dreamt-of ending hadn't happened. He'd wrestled an ornery Chevy to a sixth-place finish and settled for a final championship standing of third.

His boss, car owner Rick Hendrick, waded through the masses to throw his arms around Gordon's neck. This time, it was the parental figure (my "other father" Gordon called him earlier in the week) who was crying while the kid held it together. But then his kids showed up and dad choked up.

As Gordon hugged his family, race winner and newly crowned Sprint Cup champion Busch did his post-title interviews, mentioning for perhaps the 100th time this week that Gordon was his childhood idol. When he was a kid, Busch would wear Jeff Gordon T-shirts and pretend he was Gordon while racing big brother Kurt in their Las Vegas cul-de-sac. Later on, briefly, Busch and Gordon were teammates at Hendrick Motorsports. When Gordon appeared in Victory Lane to embrace Busch -- yes, another hug -- it was the brand-new champ who choked back tears.

There were more interviews. There were more congratulations. There were more hugs. There were more fans. A lot more fans, all following their favorite racer for the final time. He even grabbed one, a guy he'd recognized from seeing him dozens of times over the years who sported a full back tattoo of Gordon's car, and brought the fan into the media center for the postrace press conference.

"I have been walking on cloud nine all day," Gordon said, still giddy more than an hour after his final race, pausing to look over a dirt-track race program that a fan had brought to show him ... and then another hug. "I was so focused on winning the championship that the real meaning of this day probably won't hit me for another few days. Or weeks. The competitor in me is still rewinding the race and trying to figure out what we could have done differently. But that won't last long. The experience of this day will. I'll be rewinding that in my mind for the rest of my life."

With that, Jeff Gordon smiled, said thanks and descended the stairs to leave the Homestead-Miami Speedway media center. He needed to get back to his motor coach, finally back to his fortress of solitude to unzip his superhero uniform one last time. When he arrived there, his family was waiting for him, just as they had been there in the morning to send him off, including his mother. Now she was the one crying.

They had a party to attend. A big one up on South Beach that was originally planned for 200 people, but that list had swollen to more than double the amount. It's no wonder, especially with all the folks who'd surprised him by showing up at the track. Now they wanted to party with him.

No, there wasn't a fifth championship to celebrate. There wasn't even a 94th career win. This would be about a life and a career.

But first, there were hugs to give out. A lot of hugs.