Sports

Gordon ready for his last Daytona 500

Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Jeff Gordon is relaxed and ready to go racing in what will be his final Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Gordon, a four-time champion in NASCAR's premier series, will start on the pole for the 57th running of the Daytona 500 after winning last Sunday's group qualifying with a lap at 201.293 mph. This will be the 23rd time that he competes in NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season.

Last month, Gordon announced that 2015 will be his last year as a full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series. The 43-year-old Gordon had hinted at the possibility of competing in some races during the 2016 season, including the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, a race he won for a record-fifth time in 2014, but on Thursday, he said that it would be "highly unlikely" he'll race in Sprint Cup next year. Gordon does plan to be at racetracks next season for tributes and fan interactions.

Gordon will attempt to win his fourth Daytona 500. He took the checkered flag for this race in 1997, '99 and 2005. If Gordon wins again on Sunday, it would tie him with Cale Yarborough for second most victories in the Daytona 500. Richard Petty holds the record with seven victories.

Gordon has 92 wins in the Cup Series, third most all-time, but a victory in Sunday's 500-mile race at Daytona International Speedway could be the most memorable one of his illustrious career.

"This race always means a lot," Gordon said. "It's a big deal to win here. It's been since 2005 since I won the last one. I can honestly say other than last year's Brickyard 400, experiencing that win, such a huge win with the kids (Ella and Leo) and with (wife) Ingrid, but one of the standout victories and moments in my career was 2005, winning this Daytona 500. I was able to just appreciate the race more."

This will be the first time Gordon has started on the pole for the Daytona 500 since his victory in the '99 race. Dale Jarrett started first and drove to victory in the Daytona 500 in 2000, but no driver has won this event from the pole position since then.

Since his 2005 win, Gordon has finished among the top-10 in the Daytona 500 just twice. He placed fourth in last year's race, which was won by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

With a pole win and a second-place finish in the first race of Thursday's Budweiser Duel (twin 150-mile qualifying event), Gordon is more relaxed for this year's Daytona 500 than in year's past.

"Everything has been pretty much routine," he said. "It hasn't been completely like a different week or anything other than it's going well and I'm enjoying it.

"I think the biggest thing is that relaxed mindset. I'm a little bit more relaxed than I normally am for whatever reason. I guess because I'm looking at it as my last Daytona 500. I should have had this mindset many years ago. Would have been a lot more relaxed through the years."

Gordon is set to make his 762nd consecutive and career start in the series this weekend. All of them have been as driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. He made his Cup debut in the 1992 season-ending race at Atlanta. His second start occurred in the 1993 Daytona 500.

"Back then, while I was super excited, I was probably more nervous than anything else just because of the unexpected," Gordon recalled of his first Daytona 500 start 22 years ago. "I had no idea what to expect what the racing was going to be like. I didn't know what to do in the draft.

"I look back at that race and feel like we really had a car capable of winning that very first Daytona 500 in '93. We didn't have a driver that knew how to get it done. That is just lack of experience."

Gordon has not won a championship in the series since 2001, but last year, he had one of his best seasons since his most recent title 14 years ago. He scored four wins and led the series with 23 top-10 finishes. Gordon came up one point short of advancing into the final four for the Nov. 16 championship race at Homestead. He finished sixth in the point standings.

As for this year, it will be an emotional season for Gordon, especially if he wins the Daytona 500.

"To do it in my final (Daytona 500) I think would just make it far more emotional than ever before," he said. "There is excitement and there is pride that you have to win this race. But this year, I think all these thoughts of my whole career kind of coming into one moment, one season. I think if I win anywhere that it's going to be kind of like that this year. To do it in the Daytona 500 would be unbelievable, almost surreal for me to even think about it right now."

Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Feb. 22. Race: Daytona 500. Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile oval. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 200. Miles: 500. 2014 Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.