DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. – Jeff Gordon was mobbed as he weaved his way from pit road through the Daytona garage and back to his hauler.
Fans in No. 24 apparel pleaded with Gordon for an autograph, a picture. Most of all, they begged for his return.
Gordon briefly paused for a few signatures before retreating inside. But if the four-time NASCAR champion had a sliver of thought of a return next season to the superspeedway, the scene above reminded him why he walked away — his battered Chevy slowly lifted into the car bay.
Gordon wrecked on the last lap of his final Daytona 500, a crushing end to the start of his final season.
"I'm a little bit sad this is my final Daytona 500," Gordon said, "but I'm more upset we didn't have a shot at winning there at the end."
Austin Dillon turned Gordon in the middle of a huge pack vying for position in the closing two miles. Gordon spun, banged into other cars and then eventually sputtered across the finish line in 33rd place.
Gordon started on the pole and showed plenty of speed early, leading 77 of the first 100 laps. He was at the front of the field at the midway point, a bad omen for everyone at Daytona.The last halfway leader to end up in victory lane was Davey Allison in 1992.
"I'm not going to miss those final laps," Gordon said. "That was just crazy."
Subs are no factor
Replacement drivers Regan Smith and Matt Crafton were in the spotlight and out of contention. Smith, filling in for suspended Kurt Busch of Stewart-Haas Racing in the No. 41 Chevrolet, finished 16th. Crafton, a last-minute sub for injured Kyle Busch in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 Toyota, crossed the finish line less than 2 seconds later in 18th.
"The first half we just rode around and tried to learn, learn, learn," said Crafton, a two-time truck series champion. "I should have had a little better finish there at the end."
Denied a repeat
Dale Earnhardt Jr. saved his first tweet for the night of his 2014 Daytona 500 victory. About 5,100 tweets and one year later, Earnhardt lamented on Twitter his lost shot at back-to-back championships.
"That car should have won the race," he tweeted Sunday.
Earnhardt led 32 laps and stalked the leaders late until a mistake on a restart with 19 laps left dumped him from contention. Earnhardt rallied for a third-place finish in his first race with new crew chief Greg Ives.