Four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Jeff Gordon, surprised the racing world on Thursday with the announcement that 2015 will be his final season a full-time driver in NASCAR premier division. While he didn’t rule out making selected appearances behind the wheel after this season, it sounded like it wouldn’t be a frequent occurrence.
The news was shocking because Gordon is coming off one of his best seasons in the Sprint Cup Series in several years. His four wins was the most Gordon had won in a year since 2007, and he had legit chance at winning a fifth series championship until he was eliminated from NASCAR’s new Chase format in the next to last race of the season. His performance in 2014 was a throwback to the Gordon we saw dominate the sport in the late 1990s and not the Gordon that only won one race from 2008-2010.
Even at 44 years old it appeared Gordon could still make a run for a fifth championship, and then go after a sixth to tie his protege Jimmie Johnson. Now we will have to see if Gordon can win a fifth title in his last season and ride off into the sunset as a champion.
His health may have weighed on Gordon’s decision. He has dealt with back issues in recent years that he has sought treatment for.
His current total of 92 wins is third all-time in NASCAR history. While he never would have reached Richard Petty’s mark of 200 career wins, it did seem possible he would have passed David Pearson (105 wins) for second at some point. In addition to four championships, Gordon has won the Daytona 500 three times and the Brickyard 400 five times.
Gordon helped usher in a new era for NASCAR during the 1990s that saw the sport reach new heights in popularity across the country. He burst on to the scene in a rainbow-colored race car and won 42 races and three championship in his first six seasons, earning him the nickname “Wonder Boy”. Gordon was one of the first drivers that also took on the role of corporate pitchman for Fortune 500 companies as he represented his sponsors. He hosted Saturday Night Live, was name dropped in a rap song by Nelly and even filled in as a host on “Regis and Kelly”. He helped take the image of a stock car driver from a redneck in coveralls to a modern-day athlete in a firesuit emblazoned with patches of corporate sponsors.
Gordon’s first start in NASCAR’s Cup Series came in the final race of 1992 season, which was also Richard Petty’s last race. Now Gordon will likely give way to a driver that could become NASCAR’s next big star, Chase Elliott. The 19-year-old Elliott is the son of 1988 Cup champion, Bill Elliott, and is already a champion in NASCAR second highest division, the Xfinity Series. Elliott is a developmental driver for Gordon’s team, Hendrick Motorsports, and plans were in place for him to move to the Cup Series full-time 2016. With Gordon’s departure it opens up a seat for Elliott at Hendrick.
As NASCAR and Gordon’s popularity exploded in the 1990s, so did the availability of collectibles connected to the sport. A wave of NASCAR trading cards flooded the market and Gordon’s face was on plenty of them. During this time NASCAR cards helped usher in the concept of relic trading cards when Press Pass started using pieces of race car tires on their cards. Now that Press Pass has gone out of business, we’ll have to wait and see which company picks up the NASCAR license and how they will pay tribute to Gordon.