Kahne also picks up new primary sponsor for three races in 2015 RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live " Sign up for RaceView today MORE: Rodden to step in as No. 5 crew chief Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday morning that it has signed driver Kasey Kahne to a three-year contract extension, keeping him in the fold through 2018 . "I've found a home at Hendrick Motorsports," said Kahne in a team release. "We have incredible people and partners supporting us, and I couldn’t be more excited about the direction we're headed as a team and a company. It's the right place for me, and I'm looking forward to being here for a long time." The news comes one day after a major shakeup with Hendrick's No. 5 Chevrolet team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, with Keith Rodden accepting a crew chief role and Kenny Francis, atop Kahne's pit box since the 2005 season finale, shifting to the position of vehicle technical director. Kahne, an 11-year veteran and 17-time winner in NASCAR's premier series, and Francis joined the Hendrick organization in 2012. "It's extremely gratifying to work with a driver like Kasey," said Rick Hendrick , owner of Hendrick Motorsports said in a team release. "I think the world of him both as a driver with championship-level talent and an overall terrific young man. Our whole organization has a great deal of respect for how hard he works, the professionalism he displays with our partners and the way he carries himself every day. We're committed to winning races and competing for titles with him for many years to come." In addition, Kahne will have LiftMaster on board as a primary sponsor for three races in the 2015 Sprint Cup season as well as an associate sponsor for the rest of the races. The agreement will be for the next three seasons (2015 to 2017). LiftMaster will be the primary sponsor for Kahne on May 24 (Charlotte), July 11 (Kentucky) and October 18 (Kansas). "It means a lot to have support from a great company like LiftMaster," Kahne said in a release. "The No. 5 team has high expectations for 2015, and they'll be with us as the primary sponsor at three tracks where we're traditionally very fast. All of us are looking forward to representing them throughout the season and developing a successful long-term relationship." We’re excited to join @KaseyKahne & @TeamHendrick starting in 2015! http://t.co/kZJdDPiroS pic.twitter.com/2aP8Oy7CJr — LiftMaster (@LiftMaster) November 20, 2014 The 34-year-old driver has won five times in Hendrick equipment and notched his best-ever finish in the season standings -- fourth -- in his first year with the team. Last season was a struggle, however, with Kahne posting just three top-five finishes and winding up 15th in the final standings. Kahne qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs with a Labor Day weekend victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the next-to-last race of the regular season. Kahne survived the first round of eliminations in the new-look Chase, but was ousted in the Contender Round, the second three-race leg of the postseason. Kahne agreed to join Hendrick in April 2010, replacing veteran driver Mark Martin . After signing the multiyear agreement, Kahne finished out most of the season in Richard Petty Motorsports' Fords, then spent the last five races of 2010 and all of 2011 driving Red Bull Racing's Toyotas before finally landing in the No. 5 Chevy. Re-signing Kahne, whose contract was set to expire after the 2015 season, helps solidify the Hendrick driver lineup. Team cornerstone Jeff Gordon , a four-time series champion, signed a lifetime contract with Hendrick in 1999. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson is also under contract through 2015, and Dale Earnhardt Jr ., the sport's most popular driver, is signed through 2017. With Hendrick at the NASCAR-mandated maximum of four teams and the unlikelihood of Johnson departing after 2015, speculation will likely rise about the future of 18-year-old prodigy Chase Elliott , the reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion who is under contract to Hendrick and drives for the affiliated JR Motorsports team with co-owner Earnhardt. Team owner Rick Hendrick said Nov. 8 after Elliott became the series' youngest champion that the young driver's career arc will likely include a handful of Sprint Cup races next season, but that there is no accelerated timetable to place him in NASCAR's premier series on a full-time basis. Elliott will return next year to defend his title in what will be known as the NASCAR XFINITY Series, driving JRM equipment. "Another year of seasoning here will be good for him, and we're not in any hurry," Hendrick said. "He's 18 years old." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Kenny Francis expected to crew chief Nationwide champ's Cup starts in '15 RELATED: Elliott's path to a championship MORE: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live " Sign up for RaceView today While the date of Chase Elliott 's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut has not yet been set, Hendrick Motorsports revealed his expected crew chief Thursday. Appearing on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Doug Duchardt said Kenny Francis is expected to be atop the pit box for those efforts. Francis was previously Kasey Kahne 's crew chief at Hendrick and is now in the newly created position of vehicle technical director. "I went to the NASCAR Nationwide banquet and was reminded that Chase is 18 years old," Duchardt said. "He's going to run Nationwide again next year and we've announced that we're going to run some Cup races with him in 2015. I would expect that Kenny (Francis) is going to crew chief those races for him. I think that's going to be a fun aspect of next year to see how Chase does in that. We'll see how things are going in '15 and see what the right steps are in the future. Right now, we're just going to take 2015 and take a look at how things are progressing. " ... It's like having this prospect in Triple-A that's batting .380 and when is he coming up to big club and run? We'll work on that, we'll see where that all heads." As far back as August, team owner Rick Hendrick was open about trying to get Elliott into a Cup car for a handful of races in 2015. "I think you'll probably see him run a few races next year," Hendrick told the SiriusXM NASCAR Radio in August. "Before he ever won a Nationwide race, I watched him test Jimmie's car and Jeff's car at Nashville, and Jimmie and Jeff both commented to me, 'This kid is super smooth and super fast. He takes care of his equipment, and he doesn't get in a jam.' "I said before he ever ran a race, I would put him in a 600-mile race at Charlotte and think he'd finish in the top 15, top 10, because he's so smart," Hendrick added. "He just understands the car and takes care of it. I think he's going to do a super job whenever the time comes. I think we'll surely, probably the second half of next year, we'll probably see him in some races." Dale Earnhardt Jr. , the co-owner of JR Motorsports and owner of the No. 9 car, has repeatedly said that Hendrick has "a great plan" for Elliott. Elliott broke out in 2014, winning three races in the NASCAR Nationwide Series en route to becoming the youngest NASCAR national series champion. He is set to drive the No. 9 car for a second straight season with JR Motorsports in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Elliott will have a new crew chief in Ernie Cope, with Greg Ives joining Earnhardt Jr. in the Sprint Cup Series ranks. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
No. 88 team's win comes 10 years after fatal plane crash RELATED: Full race results " Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota MORE: Junior meets with another Junior MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- History exists in every turn, in every crevice of Martinsville Speedway . From the elegant grandfather clocks given as race trophies and the antiquated look and feel of the 0.526-mile track, the oldest on the circuit, to the historic black-and-white photos that populate the media center, there is always a constant reminder of the past here in the southern Virginia foothills. Dale Earnhardt Jr ., a lover of NASCAR history, made some of his own with Sunday's victory. The man who attended his first race at the track in the 1980s, who grew up playing with toy Matchbox race cars in the front hall of his childhood home, listening to a race on the radio as one of the clocks his father won chimed every hour, now has a timepiece of his own after Sunday's thrilling victory. "You know, I love the history of the sport and just can't get enough of it," said Earnhardt Jr., whose mood vacillated from euphoric to contemplative throughout a 30-minute press conference after Sunday's win. "I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I always wanted one." "This is so special. I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it's a team deal, but this is very personal and very special to me to be able to win here." He did so by charging through the field after starting 23rd, leading 79 laps and holding off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon over the frenetic final four laps in a race that had big wrecks and bigger swings. That it was Junior and Gordon finishing 1-2 made the day more fitting for Hendrick Motorsports. Yes, Martinsville is steeped in history. Not all of it is worth celebrating. It was 10 years ago when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into the side of Bull Mountain en route to Martinsville, killing all 10 people aboard. Jimmie Johnson didn't go to Victory Lane that day after his win, and team owner Rick Hendrick's presence at this track is no longer guaranteed. Sometimes attending is too painful for Hendrick , who lost his son, brother and two nieces in the tragedy. The team owner was at this one, though, his mere presence a symbol of the same strength he showed in the days and years following that incident. Like so many in the stands, he nervously watched the dramatic final stages unfold as he wondered if either of his two drivers would win -- or if they'd wreck each other trying. "We miss those folks, family and friends, and they meant so much to the organization," he said as the race wound down. "Every year we think about it, but this year's (different) … 10 years." Then he was there in Victory Lane, the man who has built a four-car operation that is the envy of many, wrapping up the 11-time Most Popular Driver Award winner in a massive embrace. There they stood as confetti poured down around them, two men who have both endured unfathomable tragedy yet manage to still exude genuine gracefulness all these years later. "I could feel how important it was to ( Hendrick ) and his embrace, when he would hug me," Earnhardt said. "You just know, there's a hug and then there's a genuine hug. His was the real deal. "This is the 10th anniversary. It's more difficult. The 10th anniversary sort of has you reflecting and remembering. … Losing my dad was difficult. I can't imagine that loss that he went through, his family went through, the whole organization. I think I've paralleled my loss and his loss until I started working with him, then I started understanding it's quite a bit larger void that it created." Sunday's unforgettable victory was Earnhardt's fourth of 2014, his highest total in a decade. He's won at Daytona and Martinsville in the same year, and swept the Pocono races. His No. 88 Chevrolet constantly runs toward the front more than it ever has in his career. In his final year with crew chief Steve Letarte, the National Guard team has reached that rare stage where it is fast at every track on the schedule. Opening the season with a Daytona 500 win set a standard the group has consistently matched, and for a while it looked like this team was destined to win the 2014 title until a rough three-race stretch ousted them from the postseason. "I don't believe in fairytales," Earnhardt Jr. said of no longer being in control of his title aspirations. "It's only destiny in hindsight, you know? This wasn't our year. It's only magical after the fact, when you see it happen." Letarte agreed, saying the team had "no excuses" for why it's out of the championship running. That reality didn't keep smiles off either of their faces, though. Letarte may have been as excited as Earnhardt, simply because of how frequently he's heard the clock talk over years -- and how winning at Martinsville was something that Earnhardt needed to check off his career resume. Sure, it didn't come in a championship season, but Earnhardt will never again have a "0" next to the win column at this venue. His place in the Martinsville history book is secured, the man who loves NASCAR history helping to ensure his name will be etched among other legends 50 years from now. There's a different kind of history that comes with this win, too. Personal history. "Hopefully when I'm at his house having a cold one, we'll listen to the thing chime 10 years from now and smile," Letarte said. Now that sounds like a fairytale ending. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Rick Hendrick accepts the 2013 Car Owner award from Las Vegas.
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.
NASCAR Hall of Fame: Rick Hendrick
Gordon wears fatherhood, philanthropy well as driving days wind down RELATED: Full coverage of Gordon announcement It's easy to think of Jeff Gordon as stock-car racing superstar, the driver who broke into the sport with a certain Madison Avenue polish in the 1990s. Back then, the knock against him was that he hadn't paid his dues. After 23 amazing seasons, no one will be able to make that claim when the curtain falls on Gordon's career. But portraying Gordon solely in terms of his driving ability as the face of NASCAR fans' adulation and as a four-time champion at the sport's highest level sells the man short. Nowhere is that point more evident than when he taught 7-year-old daughter Ella Sofia one of life's lessons in a touching Thursday morning heart-to-heart, just hours before he announced the 2015 season would be his last full ride in NASCAR. "Today is an emotional day," Gordon said Thursday afternoon with a chuckle that emphasized the understatement. "I had to tell my daughter this morning when I was explaining to her that I was going to be telling the team and people this and talking about it, and she saw me get very emotional when I was telling her. And I saw a look that I'd never seen in her eye before where she had never seen me like that, and I had to explain to her. Because most kids see when tears are flowing, it's sadness, and it wasn't for me. It was pride." Gordon was in a reflective mood on what turned out to be a whirlwind offseason day, one that gave the sports world a brief respite from the finer points of football inflation. He talked about how his illustrious NASCAR career elevated him from a short-track upstart to a household name. But there are many more opportunities that racing has afforded him, and their reach extends beyond the racetrack. On Thursday, Gordon recalled a visit he made during the 1990s to Brenner Children's Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and how lost he felt upon meeting a family whose child was undergoing treatment for cancer. From that experience early on in his career, Gordon found the inspiration and purpose for helping the cause, and he was determined that his higher calling would entail more than just breezing in for autographs and photo ops. Some 15 years after its birth, the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation has raised more than $14 million for pediatric care organizations, has helped to fund cancer research and has opened children's health centers both locally (Concord, North Carolina) and abroad (Rwanda, Africa). His car owner, Rick Hendrick , has also helped support those good works; he sits on the governing board of directors for Gordon's foundation. "It's given me something also to be very proud of beyond just driving a race car," Gordon said, "but also I know there is so much more that needs to be done for pediatric cancer that I want to be a part of in the future." While Gordon said he welcomed how his impending career change would free up more time for his philanthropic pursuits, he told the Associated Press in a Thursday interview that he also looked forward to spending more time with his family -- wife Ingrid Vandebosch, daughter Ella Sofia and his 4-year-old son, Leo. The family of four was a frequent visitor to Victory Lane in 2014 as the patriarch enjoyed one of his most rejuvenating seasons to date. And just last spring, his daughter suited up for a test run in a Quarter Midget racer, sparking speculation that the advent of the next generation of drivers named Gordon wasn't far away. Regardless of what direction his post-driving career takes, Gordon will remain a global star. Thursday morning's announcement triggered a flood of memories and heartfelt salutes from his fellow competitors, others within the motorsports industry and his devoted abundance of fans about his place as one of the most decorated drivers in the history of the sport. After the staggering news unfolded, many came forward to call him a champion, an ambassador, an icon. Earlier Thursday morning, Gordon was called something far more important: Dad. FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Jeff Gordon answers questions following his announcement that 2015 will be his final full-time racing season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Team owner, Rick Hendrick , also takes questions.
Junior's comeback season brought out the best of old and new The announcement of NASCAR's new points system dominated the preseason in 2014, and headlocks and brawls and go-for-broke racing dominated the end. But in between, the best story was the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr . The sport's biggest star turned in the most important season of his career. After a solid but winless 2013, his slide from the top of NASCAR's mountain had ended, and he needed to race his way back to the top. He did and then some. He won the wildest Daytona 500 anybody has ever seen, he won at Pocono twice, and he drove away to the checkered flag at Martinsville while everybody behind him beat-and-banged on each other. His four wins equaled his total from the previous nine seasons combined. He was nearly as entertaining off the track, as he joined Twitter and turned 140 characters into an art form. But more than the wins and the tweeting, Earnhardt's season thrilled Junior Nation because it signaled the return of the confident Dale Earnhardt Jr . In 2014, he lived and breathed the exuberance that first made him so popular and then disappeared when his career went into the toilet. Few public figures, in sports or anywhere else, are as transparent as Dale Jr. He opens his mouth and the truth comes out. If his mouth doesn't betray his true feelings, his body language does. He couldn't fake it if he tried. So even more important than the results is the manner in which he achieved them -- with a strutting, head-up, eyes forward, let's-do-this bravado, as opposed to the Dale Jr. who sulked around the garage from 2007-2011, looking at his feet, sure his car would stink before he even got in it. He lost his swagger and believed he would never find it again. And so he wallowed, year after frustrating year. Everyone had brilliant ideas about how to fix him except him. For Earnhardt, the difference between wanting to and doing is the difference between doubt and confidence, and for years he didn't believe in himself or in his cars. He looked at his race car and saw a plodding tank, and he looked in the mirror and saw a driver who couldn't drive it fast if it were a rocket ship. He fumbled through seasons like a man looking for clothes in a dark closet. He had no idea what he was pulling out, and he was stuck wearing it regardless. He tumbled to 25th in 2009 and 21st in 2010 and even those miserable stats only hint at how far he had fallen in his own head, from title contender to also-ran. He wondered if his career as a competitive driver was over. And then an amazing thing happened. Team owner Rick Hendrick gave him Steve Letarte as a crew chief before the 2011 season. Letarte arrived on Earnhardt Jr.'s porch an hour or so after getting the job. He had just finished a winless season as Jeff Gordon 's crew chief and wasn't overflowing with confidence either. Each needed to look the other in the eye and size him up. Are you going to take me back to where I belong? As Letarte entered Dale Jr.'s house, he immediately put his new driver at ease and started putting him back together again. Before they ever went to the track together, Letarte insisted on rules nobody had ever been able to enforce with Junior. Letarte told him to show up before practice to talk about the car and to stay afterward until Letarte didn't need him anymore. It sounded like drudgery to Junior. And the results were slow to come, at first. He hit everything but the scoring pylon that year in Speedweeks. Then he was slow after that. Before a race in Las Vegas, his confidence still shot, Junior forced himself to stay and listen to and talk with Letarte and the engineers. The next day, the car was as fast as any he had driven in years. From then through 2013, hints of the old Earnhardt came back. His average finish improved dramatically; it was a career best 10.9 in 2012, a far cry from his career worst in 2009 (23.2). But he visited Victory Lane just once in that stretch, in 2012. In 2013, only a blown engine in the first Chase race kept him out of title contention. He couldn't wait to start the 2014 season and immediately showed why. He drove a brilliant Daytona 500 , passing high and low and early and late and with speed and cunning. He spent most of the rest of the season at or near the top of the leaderboard. For the first time since 2004, he had a legit title chance. Those hopes evaporated with back-to-back finishes of 39th at Kansas and 20th at Charlotte in the 30th and 31st races of the season. He wound up eighth in points. But to measure him only by where he finished in points is to miss the point entirely. The way to measure the new (and getting older) Dale Jr. is against the old (and forever younger) Dale Jr. and the one in the middle. He no longer resembles the one in the middle. The new and old have a lot in common, and the key difference is this one has confidence based on wisdom and experience rather than the ignorance of youth. The highlight of Earnhardt's season came after his win at Martinsville. A win there yields an iconic grandfather clock trophy, which Earnhardt had coveted for as long as he could remember. For his Hendrick Motorsports team, it came within days of the 10-year anniversary of a Hendrick Motorsports team plane crash that killed 10 people, including Hendrick's brother, son and two nieces. Earnhardt climbed from his car in Victory Lane and unleashed an utterly captivating stream-of-consciousness interview soaked through with joy. He was out of breath when he started talking. Not from driving, he said, from celebrating. He bounced from the bucket-list delight of winning a clock to heartfelt empathy of the magnitude of winning at that place on that day. "I lost my daddy a long time ago and I know how hard that is," Junior said. "I can't imagine losing the magnitude of people Rick lost. My heart goes out to him during this weekend. And I love that his cars are good here and give him a victory. And this honors them." He talked afterward about putting the clock right by the front door of his house so everybody who came over would see it. When it chimes, it heralds a great win that capped an unforgettable comeback season. SUBSCRIBE NOW!
Virginia native and HMS owner Rick Hendrick reflects on his racing legacy at Martinsville Speedway.