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Dale Earnhardt coined him 'Wonder Boy'; some called him the 'Rainbow Warrior'; no nickname has really stuck despite his constant appearance in the NASCAR Cup series for the past 22 seasons. Fans of the #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet identify him as their favourite athlete; A strong anti-fan base over the years has called him much worse things. For 2015, we will all acknowledge Jeff Gordon for the final time as an active full-time driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition.
On Thursday, an announcement affirmed that 43-year-old Jeff Gordon will be stepping out of the driver's seat of stock car competition after one more season. Winning the NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) four times in his career, Gordon took his #24 Chevrolet to victory on 93 occasions so far (most of those races driving a multi-coloured car sponsored by Dupont). Third all-time in race wins since 1949 behind Richard Petty and David Pearson, Jeff Gordon is the winningest drive for what has been called the series' "modern era" that started in 1971. Other career highlights include three Daytona 500 victories, five Brickyard 400 wins and 77 pole position starts. Jeff Gordon was also only one of two drivers who won the Winston Million bonus (awarded 1985 until 1997 to the driver who winning three of four major races). In amassing victories and championships, Gordon also obtained celebrity status in the United States as well as the world coinciding and partially contributing to NASCAR's growth.
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Starting his career at age 16 as an open wheel prospect, Jeff Gordon's road to NASCAR was atypical for most at the time. A Californian-born driver who's family moved him to Indiana to find professional channels in auto racing, the young Gordon originally had eyes on racing the Indianapolis 500 making a name for himself in USAC. Capturing the National Midget Series championship in 1990, Jeff Gordon obtained the USAC Silver Crown one year later (a title previously won by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Mario Andretti). Experiencing difficulty finding a ride running IndyCar, the story of Jeff Gordon took on a tone resembling Tom Cruise's title character in the movie 'Days of Thunder' as he entered stock car competition. Gordon ran his first NASCAR Busch Series (now called the Xfinity Series) event at Rockingham Speedway in 1990 driving a #67 Pontiac sponsored by Outback Steakhouse. Despite finishing only 33 laps, car owner Bill Davis observed potential in the former USAC open wheel driver. Driving a #1 Ford through the 1991 season, Gordon earned Rookie of the Year. The next season, he won three Busch Series races and caught the attention of Rick Hendrick who offered Jeff Gordon a ride that shaped a NASCAR dynasty.
Sending a shockwave through the NASCAR community Thursday morning, the news of the 2015 season being Gordon's final as a competitive driver has swiftly reached the top level of the auto racing business. Brian France, NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive responded to Jeff Gordon's announcement commenting, "Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race." France went on to add in his release saying, "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."
Reluctant to refer to his final season as 'retirement' (defining it as the 'R-word' in the Hendrick Motorsports release), Gordon has expressed he plans to remain a figure around NASCAR beyond 2015. “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." said Jeff Gordon. Having raced with Hendrick Motorsports under a lifetime contract since 1999, Gordon was also granted equity in the #24 team by Rick Hendrick. Clues towards 2016 indicates the partnership and friendship with the only car owner he has driven for in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career will remain strong. "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." The dynamic between Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon after 2015 looks similar to the Rick Mears' continuing role with Roger Penske decades after that four-time Indy 500 winning driver's retirement. His focus beyond 2015 will also continue with the Jeff Gordon Foundation that devotes itself to funding pediatric cancer research.
With one full season remaining in Gordon's career behind the wheel, he is expected to finish strong. Jeff Gordon won four races in 2014 (including his record fifth Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and was in contention for the Sprint Cup before ending with the completion of the Eliminator Round.