Jeff Gordon to cease full-time driving after 2015 Sprint Cup season

Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon announced Thursday that 2015 will be his final full-time season behind the wheel of the iconic No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Gordon, 43, ranks third in all-time Sprint Cup points race victories with 92 and third in poles with 77. He trails only Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105) in race victories, and only Petty, the late Dale Earnhardt (seven each) and Jimmie Johnson (six) in championships.

The Vallejo, Calif., native ran his first Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992, the season-ending event that was also Petty’s final career race.

"As a race car driver, much of what I’ve done throughout my life has been based on following my instincts and trying to make good decisions," said Gordon in a statement released by the team after he told Hendrick employees of his decision Thursday morning. "I thought long and hard about my future this past year and during the offseason, and I’ve decided 2015 will be the last time I compete for a championship. I won’t use the ‘R-word’ because I plan to stay extremely busy in the years ahead, and there’s always the possibility I’ll compete in selected events, although I currently have no plans to do that.

"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. 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.

"Racing has provided a tremendous amount of opportunity that’s been extraordinarily rewarding and fulfilling in my life. The work we’re doing with the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation will continue to be extremely important to me. Outside the race car, my passion is pediatric cancer research, and my efforts will remain focused there when I’m no longer driving.

"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. I’m going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship.

"To everyone at NASCAR, my teammates, sponsors, competitors, friends, family, members of the media and especially our incredible fans, all I can say is thank you."

NASCAR community reacts to Jeff Gordon's big announcement

Gordon’s career highlights include three Daytona 500 victories and a record five Brickyard 400 wins, and records for road course (nine) and restrictor-plate (12) victories. Gordon has won at every track on the Sprint Cup circuit except Kentucky Speedway.

"There’s simply no way to quantify Jeff’s impact," said Hendrick, who first noticed Gordon during a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March 1992. "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 will never be able to properly express the respect and admiration I have for Jeff and how meaningful our relationship is to me. I’m so grateful for everything he’s done for our company and my family, and I look forward to many more years together as friends and business partners."

"Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race," NASCAR chairman Brian 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. 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."

Hendrick Motorsports said in a press release that it "will announce plans for its 2016 team alignment at a later date."

Speculation is strong that Chase Elliott, the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, will move up to the Sprint Cup level with Hendrick next year.