Jeff Gordon, with a nagging back injury, a young family he wanted to spend more time with and a phenom waiting in the wings at Hendrick Motorsports, knew midway through last season that he had one more year in him.
NASCAR’s most charismatic driver and four-time champion conferred with Rick Hendrick, the only team owner he has had over 23 years of Sprint Cup racing, and settled on a date. On Thursday, the Vallejo native announced that 2015 will be his final season as a full-time driver.
Gordon, 43, said he sobbed during the 30-minute drive to Hendrick Motorsports.
“I’m emotional because I am so proud,” Gordon said. “It’s all I ever wanted, to be a race car driver. And here I’ve lived this incredible dream and yet that chapter of my life has been fulfilled and it’s now time to go to the next step and the next chapter.”
He made a point to say he didn’t use the word “retirement” because he could still drive again.
Gordon’s 92 wins trail only Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). His fame reaches far beyond the track and resonates with non-sports fans. He won all the big races, collected four championships in just seven years and had 58 victories before his 30th birthday.
He was a new breed of driver when he broke into NASCAR’s top series, arriving with a sprint car pedigree and talent that made him an immediate contender. The clean-cut kid helped raise NASCAR’s corporate image beyond its moonshine roots, making it a legitimate power on Madison Avenue as tens of thousands of new fans flocked to NASCAR in the late 1990s and 2000s.
“Jeff changed the personality and perception of a race car driver in NASCAR,” retired NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds said. “Before he came along, the perception was more about the good old Southeastern boy wearing blue jeans, big belt buckles and boots. But he created a new buzz in our sport because he looked like he stepped off the cover of a GQ magazine.”
Gordon, who debuted in the final race of the 1992 season in Atlanta, won championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. He also has three Daytona 500 victories and a record five Brickyard 400 wins. Gordon said his 1994 win in the inaugural Brickyard 400 — NASCAR’s first race at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway — was easily the highlight of his career.