Gordon leaves mark on NASCAR

Joe Menzer - NASCAR Wire Service Monday, Jan 26 2013

When it comes down to it, Jeff Gordon's hope for how he is remembered in NASCAR is quite modest. "I definitely am proud of everything I've done on and off the track," Gordon said. "But I guess I like to keep it simple when I think of things like this. I think of my heroes on the track when I was growing up -- A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser.

"I loved the fact that those guys won Indianapolis 500s and championships. They were great race car drivers. And quite simply, I will be happy if people recognize me as a great race car driver, because that's all I ever wanted to be."

Yet he is so much more.

Gordon announced Thursday that the upcoming 2015 season will be his last as a full-time driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The four-time Cup champion first revealed his decision to Hendrick Motorsports employees in the morning and later held a 33-minute teleconference call along with Rick Hendrick to answer questions from the media.

Hendrick left no doubt that Gordon's wish will be granted as far as being remembered as a great driver. But he was quick to add that Gordon has been much more during a Sprint Cup career that has spanned more than two decades.

"I think the fans will remember Jeff as a young guy who came into the sport and changed the sport," Hendrick said.

Hendrick cited many of Gordon's on-track accomplishments, which include 92 career victories and 77 poles, both of which rank third all time; the first of four championships at age 24 in only his third full season in 1995; and the fact that last year Gordon challenged for a fifth title nearly all the way to the end of the season at age 42.

But then Hendrick added, "I think more than all of that they will remember how Jeff has given back through his foundation for kids, or (the) Make-A-Wish (foundation), or the professionalism he's shown whether it's been (as a guest host) on Regis and Kelly or Saturday Night Live or any of the other things he did to help bring NASCAR to the forefront. I think all of those things are going to go along with the fact that he was one of the greatest drivers ever in the sport.

"I mean, how many young drivers would not be here today if Jeff Gordon, at a young age, had not blazed the trail from an entirely different kind of series? The wins, the championships, the philanthropy, the role model, the spokesman for the sport ... all of it adds up to him being the whole package. And I bet he will continue to leave his mark beyond his driving years. The fans are going to appreciate everything he's done on and off the track."

Brian France, chairman and chief executive officer of NASCAR, could not agree more with Hendrick about Gordon's wide-ranging impact on the sport.

"Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race," France said in a statement. "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. (Thursday'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."

Gordon grew up in California, began racing at age five and moved to Indiana when he was 14 to further a career that he thought would take place in open-wheel racing. It wasn't until later that he even noticed NASCAR -- but once he turned to it, it was full speed ahead.

Gordon, now 43, ranks third in all-time Cup victories with 92, trailing only NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). He also is third in poles won with 77, and only Petty, the late Dale Earnhardt (with seven each) and Jimmie Johnson (with six) have won more championships. One of the most versatile drivers in the history of NASCAR, Gordon owns three Daytona 500 victories, a record five Brickyard 400 wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a record nine road-course victories. He has won on every current Sprint Cup track except Kentucky Speedway.

Gordon said he will continue to remain involved in the sport as the official car owner of the No. 48 Chevrolet that Johnson drives for Hendrick Motorsports and continue the charity work he does with the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation, which primarily deals with pediatric cancer research. Hendrick said Gordon will be greatly missed and that the company will address the subject of Gordon's replacement at a later date -- although it appears that defending NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Chase Elliott is in line for the ride beginning in 2016.

"There's simply no way to quantify Jeff's impact," 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. ... I look forward to many more years together as friends and business partners."

Gordon said he will remain focused on trying to win a fifth championship in 2015 for Hendrick Motorsports in his No. 24 Chevrolet. But he also said he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Ingrid Vandebosch, and their two young children, daughter Ella and son Leo.

"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 said he had discussed retirement with Hendrick before the past few seasons but determined that "now is the right time" about halfway through last season -- after he had encountered some issues with a chronic back injury.

"I wanted to do it on my own terms and I wanted to do it while I was still competitive," Gordon said. Hendrick said, "It's going to be truly awkward and strange when I walk into the garage area and I don't see Jeff sitting in the No. 24 car. At the same time, I'm looking at it like that's a year away. I want to win the championship with him this year. ... He's an icon in our sport. I'm anxious to see the next chapter -- after we win the championship this year. I'm going to put a little pressure on him."

Gordon did not miss the not-so-subtle challenge from his boss and business partner.

"I like it," Gordon said