By DAN GELSTON
AP Sports Writer
Jeff Gordon, the charismatic four-time NASCAR champion who became the face of the stock car racing as the sport exploded in popularity a generation ago, will retire as a full-time driver after the 2015 season.
Gordon did not call his decision a retirement because there is “always the possibility I’ll compete in selected events, although I currently have no plans to do that.” But it is clear that he is ready to step away after spending his entire 23-year career in the No. 24 car with Hendrick Motorsports. He delivered the news to his team early Thursday at its shop in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“As a race car driver, much of what I’ve done throughout my life has been based on following my instincts and trying to make good decisions,” Gordon said. “I thought long and hard about my future this past year and during the offseason, and I’ve decided 2015 will be the last time I compete for a championship.”
The 43-year-old Gordon is coming off one of his best seasons in years, one that ended a single point short of another shot at a title. He won four times in 2014.
Gordon suffered serious issues years ago in his back, specifically his lower spine, and needed anti-inflammatory medication and workouts with a trainer to return to full strength. He drove in pain during a winless 2008 season and briefly contemplated retirement. He did not cite health issues in Thursday’s announcement.
Gordon’s 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. Gordon was a clean-cut kid who raised 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 automobile racing 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.”
Hall of Fame driver Darrel Waltrip said a lot of people “think NASCAR started in 1992 because that’s when he came on the scene” with fresh appeal for 18-to-35 demographic.
“We didn’t really have a driver at the time who could do that,” he said.
Gordon became such a household name that he even hosted “Saturday Night Live” and was name-dropped in a Nelly song. He did it all while dominating as the “Rainbow Warrior” and teaming with crew chief Ray Evernham to collect checkered flags at a record pace.
Gordon debuted in the final race of the 1992 season at Atlanta and heads into this season with 92 career Sprint Cup wins and championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. Gordon is third in career victories, trailing only Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). He has three Daytona 500 victories and a record five Brickyard 400 wins, including last year’s race.
Leading up to last year’s Daytona 500, Gordon said he would retire if he won a fifth championship. Now, he’s made it official and will take one final victory lap around the circuit with drivers such as reigning Sprint Cup rookie of the year Kyle Larson, who grew up a die-hard fan and routinely posts childhood photos of himself in Gordon gear.
Gordon is an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports and will remain involved with the organization.
“I’ll explore opportunities for the next phase of my career, but my primary focus now and throughout 2015 will be my performance in the No. 24 Chevrolet,” he said. “I’m going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship.”
Gordon earned the nickname “Four Time” because of the Cup titles early in his career, though wins have been harder to find as his career stretched into its second decade. He posted winless seasons in 2008 and 2010 and, even in the years he qualified for the Chase in Sprint Cup championship, was never a true threat to bring home the title. Last season he returned with a vengeance and missed the championship round by one point.
“There’s simply no way to quantify Jeff’s impact,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He’s one of the biggest sports stars of a generation, and his contributions to the success and growth of NASCAR are unsurpassed. There’s been no better ambassador for stock car racing and no greater representation of what a champion should be.”
Hendrick, who also fields cars for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, did not name a replacement for 2016. Hendrick developmental driver and reigning Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliot could be in the mix to take over in the No. 24 Chevrolet.
“Hard to imagine this is (Gordon’s) last full season,” Earnhardt tweeted. “Tons of respect for him and what he’s accomplished thus far. A total professional.”
Gordon has won at every track on the Sprint Cup circuit except Kentucky Speedway. His four championships trail only Johnson, a six-time champ, for most among active drivers. Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven.
Johnson and other drivers flooded Twitter with posts about Gordon.
“What an amazing career! Glad I got to race with him!” Danica Patrick wrote.
NASCAR chairman Brian France thanked Gordon for his years of service to the sport.
“Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race. We have all enjoyed watching his legend grow for more than two decades, and will continue to do so during his final full-time season,” he said.
Gordon, married with two children, has thrust himself into charity work and said he will remain committed to his foundation. In 2006, he helped open the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital in Concord, North Carolina.
“Outside the race car, my passion is pediatric cancer research, and my efforts will remain focused there when I’m no longer driving,” he said.
Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer and Sports Writer Mark Long contributed to this report.
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