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The Drive For Five One Last Time
Few have transcended the realms of pop culture and NASCAR quite like four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon has done during his illustrious career. Gordon, who is preparing for his 23rd season in Sprint Cup Series competition, announced that 2015 will be his final season competing full-time for Hendrick Motorsports in the famed No. 24 Chevrolet.
Gordon’s career has been one for the record books, earning four NASCAR championships (1995, ’97, ’98, and 2001) along with 92 career Sprint Cup Series victories that place him third all-time.
“Ever since I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do, was be a race car driver,” Gordon said. “I hoped that it would get to this level, but I didn’t know that was going to happen. I think, if anything, it’s about seeing a kid’s dream come true in real life in front of thousands if not millions of people.”
Gordon’s emotional decision to make this upcoming season his final one ends the constant media speculation of when he would finally decide to step away full time. Persistent back problems and uncharacteristically long winless streaks left many wondering when the time would come for Gordon to make such an announcement.
However, the 2014 season proved to be a resurgence for Gordon and his No. 24 team as they tallied four victories, the most over the previous six seasons. He also qualified for the Chase – his 10th career appearance in NASCAR’s playoff format – and narrowly missed advancing to NASCAR’s championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
One would think a season like last year would have Gordon looking to extend continue his illustrious career and pursue his coveted fifth Sprint Cup Series championship. For Gordon, however, it only proved that the timing could not be any better to culminate an illustrious career.
“Nothing made me happier than signing off on this amazing career that I’ve had at Homestead and knowing that I went out – of course you want to go out on top, but even so if that’s not possible, I want to go out being competitive and going out there and putting on great racing at the top level all the way to the end,” Gordon said. “That’s all I ask for. Last year gave me that inspiration that that can happen again this year.”
Gordon was a major influence in growing a sport that once had the majority of its fan base confined to the Southeast corner of the United States. Gordon, a native of Vallejo, Calif., was not cut from the same cloth of the drivers that ruled NASCAR like Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Dale Earnhardt.
His racing roots outside the Southeast and his immense talents attracted a new audience and served as the perfect storm for NASCAR’s growth. NASCAR experienced a boom with record attendance numbers both in attendance and on television. Traditional racing markets like Bristol, Tenn., Martinsville, Va. and Darlington, S.C. were now joined by new tracks in Fort Worth, Texas, Sparta, Ky., Fontana, Calif., Kansas City, Kan. and Joliet, Ill.
“I think the greatest thing I saw (during his career) was in those mid to late 90’s, the growth of the sport, and how going to Indianapolis, and going to Texas, and move all over the country and then packaging the TV broadcasting partners along with that, and during that same time the fans and their avidness for the sport was growing further and further,” Gordon said. “The core was still the Southeast, but you started seeing it be so recognizable beyond that and throughout the U.S.”
Longtime team owner Rick Hendrick, who has shared all 22 previous seasons with Gordon, will remember his driver as much for his charitable work as much as his driving. Gordon has used his on-track success to help raise awareness of pediatric cancer research through the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation. His efforts in cancer research span the globe from Charlotte, N.C. to Rwanda, Africa.
“You’ve got the wins, the championships, the philanthropy, just a role model and spokesman for the sport,” Hendrick said of Gordon. “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.”
As Gordon looks to conclude his stellar career with a championship, he hopes that NASCAR fans, both Gordon advocates and detractors, can appreciate his work.
“Quite simply, I’ll be happy if people recognize me as a great race car driver because that’s all I ever wanted to be,” Gordon said.