Hendrick Motorsport's four-time champion Jeff Gordon has confirmed that the forthcoming 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship season will be his last as a full-time competitor in the sport.
“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,” said the 43-year-old. "I thought long and hard about my future this past year and during the off-season, and I've decided 2015 will be the last time I compete for a championship."
Gordon was the series rookie of the year in 1993 and went on to win the Cup championship on four separate occasions, in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. Along the way he's amassed 92 career Cup victories which include nine road course and seven restrictor plate events, together with 77 career Cup pole positions which puts him third on the all-time rankings in both categories.
Widely credited as having helped to transform the image of NASCAR during his two decades in the sport, Gordon is a three-time Daytona 500 winner (in 1997, 1999 and 2005) and had also won five times in the Brickyard 400 (1994, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2014) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which ties him with Michael Schumacher as the driver with the most victories at IMS. He made it into the 2014 Chase and was the last of the four-strong HMS line-up to be eliminated from last year's play-offs.
Gordon said that his future plans were yet to be decided, and that there was always a chance he would be back in a NASCAR race car on a part-time basis in years to come.
"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," he said. "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.
"I'm passionate about the business and its future success," he added. "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.
“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 #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."
He concluded: "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."
Gordon told the Hendrick team workers of his decision in person at the team factory in Concord, North Carolina on Thursday morning.
“There's simply no way to quantify Jeff's impact,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. "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 added. "I will never be able to properly express the respect and admiration I have for Jeff and how meaningful our relationship is to me. I'm so grateful for everything he's done for our company and my family, and I look forward to many more years together as friends and business partners."
Gordon's announcement paves the way for 2014 Nationwide Series champion Chase Elliott to move into the seat of the #24 car in 2016, but the team will not confirm its plans for Gordon's successor until later in the year.
The other drivers in the HMS line-up are six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the newest addition Kasey Kahne who joined the team in 2012 after Red Bull Racing quit the sport at the end of the previous season.
"Hard to imagine this is @JeffGordonWeb last full season," said Earnhardt on Twitter after the announcement was made public. "Tons of respect for him and what he's accomplished thus far. A total professional."
"Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race," said Brian France, chairman and chief executive officer of NASCAR. "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," France noted. "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."