By Lewis Franck
DAYTONA, BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Jeff Gordon’s Dayton 500 farewell party ended in a bang but not the kind he had hoped as the three-time former winner waved goodbye to the Great American race with a last lap crash on Sunday.
After winning the pole and finishing second in a 150 mile qualifying race on Thursday, Gordon had set himself up as a favorite in the 57th running of NASCAR's showcase event.
A fourth victory, however, was not in the cards for the 43-year old, four-time NASCAR champion who announced that Sunday's 500 would be his last.
“That first half was amazing,” Gordon said. “I was enjoying that moment very, very much. Just being out front. Being in control of the race.
"I felt like we were just doing everything perfectly. The car was amazing.”
The race was the start of the final chapter of what has been a remarkable career for Gordon, who broke into the rough-and-tumble world of top flight stock car racing at the tender age of 21 and over two decades later exits as one of the all-time greats.
He made his career winning big races like the 500 in 1997 and would put his car in the Daytona Victory Lane again in 1999 and 2005.
In a career spanning 22 full seasons, he registered 92 careers victories and still retains a youthful appearance and energy
Despite leading 87 of the 203-laps around the high-banked Daytona International Speedway it was not enough the last lap wreck leaving well back in 33rd place.
“Believe it or not I actually got a good run with Kasey Kahne (his team mate) up the middle," explained Gordon. "It was hairy. I knew there was high potential of a wreck.
“I think we maybe could have gotten a top-five out of it. Then they started wrecking, or somebody hit me."
Gordon will have at least one more race at Daytona when the series returns to the high-banked speedway in July. But he won’t race again at the storied 500.
"I enjoyed every moment of it. I enjoyed the pre-race and the race; all the way up to that wreck," said Gordon.
(Editing by Steve Keating.)