Almirola will pilot patriotic car for two holiday race weekends Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live The U.S. Air Force is joining forces with Richard Petty Motorsports for the seventh consecutive season as a primary sponsor for two races on Aric Almirola 's No. 43 Ford in the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season. Almirola will carry the Air Force logo for the two most patriotic race weekends of the season: Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 (Sunday, May 24, 6 p.m. ET, FOX) and Fourth of July weekend at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400 (Sunday, July 5, 7:45 p.m. ET, NBC). In addition, the U.S. Air Force will remain an associate partner on the No. 43 Ford for the entire 2015 season. This season marks the U.S. Air Force's 15th in NASCAR. Almirola will also continue to support at-track swear-ins for the Delayed Entry Program and entertain active duty military guests at the track. Almirola won the Coke Zero 400 last summer at Daytona with the U.S. Air Force as his primary sponsor. The victory was his first in the Sprint Cup Series and came on the 30th anniversary of Richard Petty's 200th win. The military branch has a close tie to Almirola as his father served in the U.S. Air Force and Almirola was born on Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. "Working with the Air Force for the past three years has been really rewarding," Almirola said in a team release. "With my dad serving in the Air Force, I understand the sacrifice the men and women make to keep our country safe. It was great to be able to celebrate my first Sprint Cup win with the Air Force, and I'm so glad they will be back as we defend our win in the Coke Zero 400 ." FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
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Veteran has 92 career wins, four premier series titles MORE: NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France statement on Gordon " Gordon hub page RELATED: Drivers react to Gordon's announcement " Fans share favorite Gordon memories Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday morning that this will be Jeff Gordon 's final season competing for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. The four-time champion announced the news to his No. 24 team Thursday, saying he hesitated using the word "retirement" as he enters his 23rd and final full-time season. Letting team know this will be my final year competing for a championship. pic.twitter.com/s7aH8OpGQZ — Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) January 22, 2015 "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," Gordon said in a release provided by the team. "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." Gordon, 43, signed a lifetime contract in 1999 with team owner Rick Hendrick, who first brought him into stock-car racing's big leagues at the end of the 1992 season. He scored four victories in last season's resurgent campaign, bringing his career victory total to 92, third-most on NASCAR's all-time list. The rest of his stellar portfolio -- including three Daytona 500 wins and a record five Brickyard 400 victories -- boasts all the credentials for automatic first-ballot induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In a statement, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said, " Jeff Gordon transcends NASCAR and will be celebrated as one of the greatest drivers to ever race. 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." RELATED: How Gordon fared in 2014 with different paint schemes Gordon had joked ahead of the 2014 season that he would retire on the spot if he were to claim his fifth title, but his rejuvenating run deep into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs seemed to quell any retirement buzz. On Thursday, Gordon said that while his driving days may be coming to a close, he'll continue to stay active in the sport. "I don't foresee a day when I'll ever step away from racing," said Gordon, who is a part-owner of Hendrick's No. 48 team driven by teammate Jimmie Johnson . "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." Gordon first caught Hendrick's eye in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series in March 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway , with the veteran team owner marveling about the young driver's car control, even as he seemed on the brink of losing control. Eight months later, Gordon made his debut for Hendrick at the same Georgia track in what signaled a passing of the torch in the NASCAR driver ranks. King Richard Petty said farewell in his final NASCAR start, and Gordon -- who cut his teeth through the sprint-car circuit -- said hello to the world of stock-car racing, paving the way for what became a dynasty for the rest of the decade. "There's simply no way to quantify Jeff's impact," Hendrick said in the team release. "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." RELATED: Gordon strives for five in 2015 Gordon's decision creates a high-profile vacancy for 2016 on one of the sport's most powerful teams. The most likely candidate to replace the four-time champ is reigning XFINITY Series champion Chase Elliott , the 19-year-old wunderkind who remains under contract to Hendrick as he campaigns full-time for JR Motorsports, co-owned by Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr . Earnhardt and Hendrick both indicated last year that Elliott was primed to make his first steps into the Sprint Cup Series in 2015, with the possibility of a full-time ride the following season. Though his days of full-time competition in the No. 24 Chevrolet are drawing to a close, Gordon said his desire for a fifth crown hasn't waned. "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," Gordon said. "I'm going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship." International Speedway Corporation CEO Lesa France Kennedy credited Gordon with raising the sport's popularity. In a statement she said, " Jeff Gordon 's significance to our sport cannot be overstated. He is an incredible competitor, and a favorite of millions of fans. His contributions throughout his career to NASCAR have elevated our sport's popularity worldwide. On behalf of the France family and ISC, I thank him for those contributions and wish him the best as he embarks on this next chapter of his career – and his life. We all look forward to watching him take the green flag for his last full-time season, beginning with the DAYTONA 500." That was far from the only statement of support and appreciation of Gordon. Mark Reuss, General Motors executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain, said the organization was proud of its association with Gordon. " Jeff Gordon is an incredible competitor, leader and ambassador for Chevrolet and motorsports. He has contributed so much – not only on the track with his 92 wins and four championships, but also away from the track as a businessman, with the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation, and more importantly, as a husband and father. He is a champion, and he has been a great friend. We are proud of our relationship with Jeff, and, just like all of his fans, we look forward to watching him compete for one more championship. We wish Jeff and his family -- Ingrid, Ella and Leo -- all of the best." Gordon began his motorsports career at the early age of 5 in quarter-midget cars, progressing up the ladder of open-wheel racing on dirt and asphalt. As a teenager, he moved with his family from his Vallejo, California, hometown to Indiana in an effort to further his sprint-car career. After notching championships in two U.S. Auto Club divisions, he got his first taste of the XFINITY Series with one race for car owner Hugh Connerty in 1990 before going full-time with team owner Bill Davis the following year. Gordon's solid first season was merely a prelude to his eye-popping 1992 campaign, where he steered Davis' No. 1 Baby Ruth-sponsored Ford to three wins and 11 pole positions. From there, his stock-car career gained momentum and cemented his future as a star when he joined Hendrick's operation. Gordon's rise also marked a career-changing move for a young mechanic named Ray Evernham, a former modified driver from New Jersey who was paired to be his crew chief on the start-up No. 24 team. Evernham helped transform the makeup of the modern pit crew, bringing in a group of professional athletes to service the car, forging what would become known as the "Rainbow Warriors" in a nod to the DuPont-sponsored team's colorful paint scheme. Gordon endured a rough-and-tumble rookie season, going winless with a high number of early exits -- 11 DNFs -- that left him 14th in the final 1993 standings. In 1994, he broke through for his first premier series triumph in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway , sparking a tearful celebration in Victory Lane. His other win that season came in the inaugural stock-car race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway . RELATED: See Gordon's memorable celebration at Charlotte following his first win From there, the floodgates opened for a dominant rest of the decade. From 1995 to 2001, Gordon landed all four of his championships -- including three in a four-year span from '95 to '98. Over the same seven-year stretch, Gordon amassed 56 victories -- including two Daytona 500 wins -- and established himself as one of the sport's elite drivers. Even with just five full seasons under his belt, he was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers before the 1998 season. Though Gordon picked up a new generation of fans enamored with his on-track success and matinee-idol good looks, some of the older guard of fans were slow to warm to the hotshot from the Midwest. Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt widened the divide by playfully tweaking Gordon with the nickname of "Wonder Boy." Gordon tweaked right back, toasting his first championship with milk instead of champagne at Earnhardt's suggestion, creating a competitive relationship borne of mutual respect. While Gordon's racing prowess made him a fan favorite, his comfort level in front of the camera brought him and the sport in front of new audiences. His roles as an adept TV host and guest, plus guest appearances on television series and feature films helped make him a household name among non-racing fans. Gordon's second decade in the sport continued his roll with major victories, including the 2005 Daytona 500 , but his bids for a fifth championship came up just short. He finished second to Johnson in 2007 and wound up third on two other occasions. Last year, Gordon maintained that he was still seeking his first Sprint Cup championship, since his four titles came during the later years of the series' sponsorship by R.J. Reynolds. While his goals for 2015 are for nothing short of a championship, Gordon is also poised to break the sport's all-time longevity streak. He is scheduled to tie the all-time record of 788 consecutive starts set by Ricky Rudd next season at Chicagoland Speedway , site of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs opener on Sept. 20. Gordon would break the mark the following weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway . RELATED: Gordon in fold for 2015, discusses past back woes Gordon's staying power has been largely free of medical issues, though the streak faced a threat last season. Gordon -- who underwent a procedure to help relieve chronic back pain in May 2009 -- battled through a flare-up ahead of the 2014 Coca-Cola 600 , completing all 600 miles in NASCAR's longest race a day after sitting out practice because of the ailment. The healing powers of four wins last season, though, had Gordon enthused about keeping his career going. "I just feel so competitive out there, and that makes me feel young again," Gordon said after posting his fifth Indy victory last July. "When the cars are that good, my back just doesn't seem to hurt as much ... Man, if 43 is like this, I can't wait for 50." Gordon's celebrations last year took on greater meaning as his 7-year-old daughter, Ella, and 4-year-old son, Leo, were regular visitors to Victory Lane with their father and proud mom Ingrid Vandebosch. While Gordon's title aspirations took deep root, he reflected on how important it was for his children and wife to experience a championship, a motivator that sharpened his career goals. As Gordon welcomed his growth as a family man as he headed toward the twilight of his racing career, he also transitioned into the role of philanthropist. Since establishing the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation in 1999, his reach has included the opening of a children's hospital in Concord, North Carolina in 2006, and his co-founding of the Athletes for Hope non-profit organization the following year. Gordon said last month at the end of NASCAR Champions' Week festivities that he never intended to retire after the 2014 season if he'd claimed championship No. 5. Now with one final full season, Gordon -- who offered grateful words to the NASCAR industry and fans Thursday morning -- has a chance to drive into the next chapter of his life with a championship ring for the thumb. "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," Gordon said.
Alan Cavanna brings you Up To Speed with the latest news about Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Brad Keselowski for the Coca-Cola 600 .