23 full-time seasons. 92 wins. 320 top fives and 454 top 10s. Sounds unreal, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.
Jeff Gordon, the face of NASCAR since winning the Coca-Cola 600, is “retiring,” but he’s just moving out of the driver’s seat. After becoming one of the best drivers in NASCAR history, Gordon, who will turn 44 in August, has announced that the 2015 season will be his final full-time year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
“This is certainly something that I've been thinking about for years,” Gordon said in a teleconference on Thursday afternoon. “Rick and I have talked about for a number of years. You're always trying to, when you get to this point in your career and you've done as much as we've done as a team, trying to figure out when that right time to step away is. I always said I wanted to step away on my own terms if possible, and I want to be competitive out there, and I hoped that I could do that all the way through my final year.”
Gordon’s numbers speak for itself. There isn’t a need to go into hefty detail about his career on the track. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports since the final race of the 1992 season at Atlanta, which was Richard Petty’s last event, has shown the importance of the No. 24 team. From working with Ray Evernham and Robbie Loomis, to Steve Letarte and Alan Gustafson, Gordon has found success no matter who was on the top of the pit box.
But where Gordon is different from everyone else is his philanthropy. Running the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation since 1999, he has helped raise approximately $15 million, which goes towards pediatric cancer research, the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital and plenty of other resources to help children and families.
“You've got the wins, the championships, the philanthropy, just role model and spokesman for the sport,” said team owner, Rick Hendrick. “I've always said he's got the whole package, and he will leave his mark beyond the driving years too. He's a special guy, and I think the fans are going to appreciate everything he's done on and off the track.”
The reaction around the sport to Gordon’s announcement, which surprised no one considering his ailing back issues and two children that are getting older, has been spectacular. For those who don’t know non-NASCAR fans, go up to any random person and ask to name one NASCAR driver that they know. Surprise, surprise. Chances are, the answer that you are going to get is: Jeff Gordon.
Although Gordon believes Homestead will be the final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race he will ever enter, he has not ruled out running events in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Camping World Truck Series, sports cars or even off-road racing. He will still have a presence at the track in 2016, and will likely be heavily involved in the future of Hendrick Motorsports.
NASCAR without Gordon seems odd. He has helped create the multi-million dollar sponsorship industry that we see today. Until Dupont was sold, he had the longest running driver-team-sponsorship relationship since Richard Petty and STP. Without Gordon, Jimmie Johnson probably wouldn’t be at HMS, and winning six championships over the past decade.
I didn’t grow up as a fan of Gordon. Until I became a reporter, I really didn’t have respect for him. When you realize how much of an impact one person can have on a whole sport, it makes you earn understand just how important living life at its fullest can be. Just like the Hall of Famer that he is, Gordon has shown he is a first class athlete.
Arguably more important to NASCAR than Derek Jeter was and still is to the Yankees, Gordon’s legacy will never end. The face of the sport is Gordon, and it probably will be for a very long time. Continuing Petty’s legacy, Gordon now hands down the throne to the future of HMS, Chase Elliott, who is expected to take over his seat in 2016 and beyond.