Jeff Gordon announced today that the 2015 season will be his final full-time season driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, stepping away after his 23rd full season.
Gordon announced the decision with this statement:
“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. I won’t use the ‘R-word’ because I plan to stay extremely busy in the years ahead, and there’s always the possibility I’ll compete in selected events, although I currently have no plans to do that.
“I don’t foresee a day when I’ll ever step away from racing. I’m a fan of all forms of motor sports, but particularly NASCAR. We have a tremendous product, and I’m passionate about the business and its future success. As an equity owner in Hendrick Motorsports, I’m a partner with Rick (Hendrick) and will remain heavily involved with the company for many years to come. It means so much to have the chance to continue working with the owner who took a chance on me and the incredible team that’s stood behind me every step of the way.
“Racing has provided a tremendous amount of opportunity that’s been extraordinarily rewarding and fulfilling in my life. The work we’re doing with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation will continue to be extremely important to me. Outside the race car, my passion is pediatric cancer research, and my efforts will remain focused there when I’m no longer driving.
“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. I’m going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship.
“To everyone at NASCAR, my teammates, sponsors, competitors, friends, family, members of the media and especially our incredible fans, all I can say is thank you.”
The 43-year old ranks third all-time in the series with 92 wins, behind only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105), although he has the most during the “modern era” (post-1972). Gordon ranks fourth all-time with four series championships, behind Petty and Dale Earnhardt (7) and Jimmie Johnson (6).
After growing up in California and Indiana, his career began in quarter midgets and sprint cars before moving to stock cars in 1990, and driving in what was then the Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) for owner Bill Davis in 1991-92. Rick Hendrick noticed the young Gordon, and gave him a ride for the Winston Cup Series (now the Sprint Cup Series) for 1993, running his first Cup race in Richard Petty’s last at Atlanta in 1992. Gordon has run the #24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports ever since, and is even an equity owner of the Hendrick team, owning a share of Jimmie Johnson’s #48 car.
Following a Rookie of the Year campaign in 1993, Gordon won his first event in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in ’94. His second win came at Indianapolis, known as the Mecca of motorsports, in the first ever stock car race there, the 1994 Brickyard 400. To many it is still considered Gordon’s greatest victory, as it impacted more that just Gordon’s career, but an entire sport.
Following an eighth place points finish in his sophomore season, Gordon won his first Cup title in 1995, and after finishing second to teammate Terry Labonte in ’96, won back-to-back titles in ’97-’98, becoming the fourth driver at the time to win three titles in a four-year stretch. Gordon won 40 races in that four-year stretch, one of the best stretches in NASCAR history. Over one stretch in 1998, Gordon won six out of seven races, including the Brickyard 400 and Southern 500, two of the sport’s biggest races.
In 1999-2000, Gordon finished sixth and ninth in points, although after the run of the four years before, it seemed like a letdown. But Gordon responded in 2001, winning his fourth title, at the time becoming the third driver to do so (Jimmie Johnson has since joined him).
While Gordon has not won a title since, he has remained extremely competitive during the “Chase Era” in the Sprint Cup Series. In 2004, Gordon finished third in the inaugural Chase, only losing by 16 points (in the points system used at the time, that was the rough equivalent of 4 points today). Three years later, in 2007, Gordon set a modern era record with 30 top 10s in the 36 race schedule, but finished second in points to Johnson. In 2009, he finished third behind Johnson and fellow teammate Mark Martin, joining together for the only 1-2-3 points finish in history by a set of three teammates.
After being added to the Chase in 2013 after initially missing by one point under cloudy circumstances, Gordon was very competitive in 2014, winning four times including a special win at Indianapolis (more on that later), and came within a point of advancing to the final round of the new Chase format featuring elimination rounds, finishing sixth in points. A late race incident with Brad Keselowski is what likely cost Gordon the chance to compete for his fifth title in the finale, and he ended up sixth in the standings.
In the 11 seasons of the Chase era to date, Gordon has only missed the Chase once (remember, it used to be harder to get in than it is now with 16 spots), falling short in 2005 despite four wins.
In addition to series championships, Gordon has had success in the biggest individual races each year. He has won three Daytona 500s, in 1997, ’99, and 2005. In each instance, Gordon pulled off and aggressive move to take the lead, then held off the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett in the ’90s and Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, and Johnson in ’05. Gordon is one of only five drivers to win at Daytona three or more times, and only Petty and Cale Yarborough can claim more wins in the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” than Gordon. He has also won the July race at Daytona three times.
At Darlington, Gordon has won the Southern 500 more than any driver in the history of that race, which dates back to NASCAR’s second season in 1950, with six wins (1995-98, 2002, ’07). He is one of eight drivers to win the Coca-Cola 600 three times or more (1994, ’97-’98), with only Darrell Waltrip and Johnson having more wins than Gordon.
In 1997, he won all three in the same year, becoming the second driver to win the “Winston Million”, a promotion sponsored by then-series sponsor RJ Reynolds to reward any driver that won three of the four “crown jewels” (along with the spring race at Talladega), joining Bill Elliott, who accomplished the feat in the promotion’s first year in 1985.
As mentioned, Gordon won the Brickyard 400 in 2014 for a very special victory. The win was Gordon’s fifth in the event (1994, ’98, 2001, ’04, ’14), making him the first driver in any series, in any form of racecar, to win five races at the Speedway, including in the Indianapolis 500, where the record of four wins is shared by legends AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, and Al Unser Sr.
Gordon’s competitiveness in 2014 and the energy he has shown today throughout the media engagements surrounding his announcement show he will be competitive in his final season. This is something the sport hasn’t ever seen from a retiring driver (although several driver’s careers have been ended by injury or death during their prime). Gordon will try to join Ned Jarrett as the only driver to retire a Cup Series champion, but Jarrett walked away after winning the title, so no one knew they were watching his final season as it happened. With Petty’s final season in 1992, dubbed by The King as a “Fan Appreciation Tour”, he wasn’t at all competitive, particularly considering the merits of his career, with a high finish of 15th eight years after his final win.
Gordon said in a teleconference this afternoon he doesn’t want there to be ceremonies at every track commemorating his final season throughout the year, but instead said the time for that is in 2016, when he will still be at the track but will not have any competitive obligation, and can be more proactive with the fans.
That all goes with Gordon’s choice not to use the word “retirement” in discussing his decision. Gordon said he perceives retirement as someone moving to the beach or sitting on the porch in a rocking chair. He says he’ll still be very active in the sport, and other business interests, but will do so without competing.
To fans who don’t understand the magnitude of Gordon to his sport, think of this as equivalent to Derek Jeter’s final season, which we all just witnessed last year. When Gordon came into the sport in the early ’90s, NASCAR had come a long way with ESPN’s coverage throughout most of the ’80s, but was still viewed as a Southern sport. There was good reason for that, as only five of the top 15 finishers in Gordon’s first Cup race in 1992 were from outside the South. (By the way, Gordon finished 31st that day.)
In the last race of 2014 at Homestead, only two of the top 15 were from the South, showing the national explosion the sport has taken in terms of its participants. Furthermore, Gordon’s career has seen tracks built in California, Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, and Nevada which host Cup Series races, as there are now NASCAR fans everywhere.
The first driver from outside the South to win a Cup Series title was Alan Kulwicki, who did it the day Gordon’s career began in the 1992 season finale. His success would be short-lived, as he died in a plane crash the following April, during Gordon’s rookie campaign. Gordon went on to become the first superstar who wasn’t Southern by origin, and in many ways led the way for the likes of Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick, all of whom have won championships in the Chase era.
Gordon has never missed a start since his debut in 1992, running in 761 consecutive races since. Barring the unforeseen, Gordon will pass Ricky Rudd (known as “The Iron Man”) on September 27 for the consecutive starts record, after Rudd ran 288 races in a row from 1981-2005 (Note: I was a Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2002 when Rudd broke Terry Labonte’s consecutive starts record.)
It won’t be the only record owned by Gordon, even if you somehow overlook his wins and championships. Gordon currently holds the all-time record of 22 consecutive seasons with at least one pole, and has won the third most poles all-time, once again behind Petty and Pearson (exactly the way they stand in wins).
As for what’s next for the #24 car, a number which Gordon is identified with in the sport as much as Earnhardt and #3 or Petty and #43, it seems likely that Chase Elliott, the son of former Cup Series champion and 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott, will move to the seat in 2016, although there is no official word from Hendrick. Elliott won the championship in the Xfinity Series last year, in the same year he graduated from high school, driving for JR Motorsports, a team competitively allied with Hendrick which has, at times, served as a bit of a satellite operation for Hendrick. Elliott also ran races at lower levels for Hendrick before moving to the Xfinity Series at the age of 18.
Someone on Twitter today suggested Elliott make his Cup Series debut at Homestead, to parallel Gordon’s career, making his first start in the season finale before running the following season full-time, and running the last race of a legend, just as Gordon did in Petty’s final race. Elliott is expected to run a handful of Sprint Cup races in 2015, but I doubt Hendrick would want to wait until the finale to break in the youngster. Instead, I’ll suggest that, for the same reason of parallels to Gordon’s career, Elliott could make his debut March 1 at Atlanta, the very track where Gordon made his 23 years ago.
On a personal level, Gordon was one of my first two sports heroes, as my very young self was endeared to both Gordon and Chipper Jones at a very young age. I was taught by my aunt to respond to the question “Who’s the best driver?” with the answer “Jeff Gordon” before I could read that question. That being said, today was obviously bittersweet, and although I knew the day would one day come, I was very surprised by the timing of it, with Gordon coming off his most competitive season in years.
Brian France, the Chairman and CEO of NASCAR, commented on Gordon’s announcement, saying:
“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. His prolonged excellence and unmatched class continue to earn him the admiration of fans across the globe. Today’s announcement is a bittersweet one. I’ll miss his competitive fire on a weekly basis, but I am also happy for Jeff and his family as they start a new chapter. On behalf of the entire NASCAR family, I thank Jeff for his years of dedication and genuine love for this sport, and wish him the very best in his final season.”
I’ll agree with France that Gordon is one of the greatest in the history of the sport. Coming from a member of the France family, the family that started it all in 1949, and has overseen the sport throughout the entirety of its existence, I think that’s a pretty accurate measure of what the 92 wins for Gordon have meant to the sport.
So, fans, savor this season, as Gordon runs 36 more Cup Series races. Because you are truly watching one of the greatest ever turn his final lap.