Jeff Gordon knew midway through last season that he had just one more year in him.
NASCAR's most charismatic driver, the man behind the wheel of the famed and sometimes feared No. 24, had decided the timing was right to call it quits on one of the most successful careers in motorsports history. The four-time champion conferred with Rick Hendrick, the only team owner he has had in his illustrious 23-year Sprint Cup career, and settled on a date.
The 43-year-old Gordon announced Thursday that 2015 will be his final season as a full-time driver, saddening legions of fans, his fellow drivers and others who watched him became the face of stock car racing as the sport exploded in popularity a generation ago.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Gordon said he reached his decision last summer. He had seen other drivers embark on distracting farewell tours, and he didn't want to be that guy. Although he told his crew chief after narrowly missing out on a fifth championship of his decision, it took time to settle on Thursday as the day to tell the world.
It started with a tearful conversation with his two young children when they woke up for school. They worried they won't go to the race track anymore, that other kids would think of them differently if their father was not a famous race car driver.
That early morning conversation with Ella and Leo made the decision a reality for Gordon and he wept — one of many times emotion got the best of him as the day progressed.
"Ella just stared at me, she'd never seen me cry like that before," Gordon told AP. "After that, I seriously broke down. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I got so emotional and thought, 'How am I going to get through this day?'"
Gordon said he sobbed during the entire 30-minute drive to Hendrick Motorsports, where clad in a suit that embodied his role as the consummate professional, he informed his team and his longtime employees of his decision. With crew chief Alan Gustafson by his side and Ray Evernham, who guided him to three of his Cup titles, in attendance, Gordon cried again and he choked back tears during his interview with AP when his mother sent him a text message that he read aloud: "I never knew watching SportsCenter could be so emotional."
"I'm emotional because I am so proud," Gordon said. "It's all I ever wanted, to be a race car driver. And here I've lived this incredible dream and yet that chapter of my life has been fulfilled and it's now time to go to the next step and the next chapter."
He made a point to say he didn't use the word "retirement" because he could still drive again after this season. He specifically mentioned interest in Martinsville Speedway, where he has eight wins. And he didn't rule out racing in the Xfinity Series, Truck Series or in sports cars, particularly at Le Mans. He did say he will not be a participant in the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.
"Retiring to me means sitting on a beach or sitting on your porch in a rocking chair, drinking your coffee or petting your dog," he said.
Gordon suffered serious issues years ago in his back, specifically his lower spine, and needed anti-inflammatory medication and workouts with a trainer to return to full strength. He drove in pain during a winless 2008 season and briefly contemplated retirement.
Gordon's 92 wins trail only Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).
But his fame reaches far beyond the track and resonates with non-sports fans. He won all the big races, collected four championships in just seven years and had 58 victories before his 30th birthday.
He was a new breed of driver when he broke into NASCAR's top series, arriving with a sprint car pedigree and talent that made him an immediate contender. Gordon was a clean-cut kid who raised NASCAR's corporate image beyond its moonshine roots, making it a legitimate power on Madison Avenue as tens of thousands of new fans flocked to automobile racing in the late 1990s and 2000s.
"Jeff changed the personality and perception of a race car driver in NASCAR," retired NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds said. "Before he came along, the perception was more about the good old Southeastern boy wearing blue jeans, big belt buckles and boots. But he created a new buzz in our sport because he looked like he stepped off the cover of a GQ magazine."
Hall of Fame driver Darrel Waltrip said many people "think NASCAR started in 1992 because that's when he came on the scene" with fresh appeal for 18-to-35 demographic.
"We didn't really have a driver at the time who could do that," he said.
Gordon became such a household name that he even hosted "Saturday Night Live" and was name-dropped in a Nelly song. He did it all while dominating as the "Rainbow Warrior" and teaming with Evernham to collect checkered flags at a record pace.
Gordon debuted in the final race of the 1992 season at Atlanta. Besides the championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001, he has three Daytona 500 victories and a record five Brickyard 400 wins, including last year's race. He has two wins at Richmond, in 1996 and 2000. The Cup series' 2015 dates at RIR are April 25 and Sept. 12.
Gordon told AP that his 1994 win in the inaugural Brickyard 400 — NASCAR's first race at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway — was easily the highlight of his career.
The low point? Intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer in the closing laps of the 2012 race at Phoenix, where frustrations over a disappointing season got the best of him. His actions triggered a brawl between teams in the garage.
Gordon also admitted Thursday that a post-race melee on pit road with Brad Keselowski last November was in part triggered by his knowledge that perhaps a final shot at another championship had slipped away. He was racing for the win when contact with Keselowski on a late restart effectively ended his title chances.
There are many who believe Gordon would have broken the record of seven Cup titles shared by Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt if not for NASCAR's adoption of the Chase for the Championship format in 2004. He went down to the wire in 2004 for the title, then lost a battle with teammate Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
After several so-so years, he returned with a vengeance last season. Gordon won four times, grabbed his record fifth win at Indy that he was able to share with his children, and led the points for most of the year.
But a tweak to the championship format that created eliminations denied him a shot at the elusive fifth championship. The Keselowski incident at Texas took Gordon from just a few laps shy of a victory and championship berth to a deficit that cost him a spot in the four-man field by a single point.
Coming so close didn't change his decision to drive only one more year, though. He said the timing was right both personally and professionally.
Although no replacement for Gordon has been announced, the next driver of the No. 24 will most certainly be reigning Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliott. With a full roster of four drivers, Hendrick has been handcuffed in what he can do with the 19-year-old phenom because he doesn't have the open Sprint Cup seat.
With an ownership stake at Hendrick, and plans to remain involved with the organization after he gets out of the car, Gordon told AP "the timeline was just right."
But he also put a heavy emphasis on a nagging back issue, as well as his family life, which has changed dramatically over his career.
The one-time "Wonder Boy" was a mustachioed young bachelor when he entered NASCAR, and he embarked on a storybook romance with the series' leading model that led to the most high-profile marriage the sport had ever seen. Gordon and the former Brooke Sealey split in 2002. He found happiness and the desire to start a family when he married Ingrid Vandebosch in 2006.
"I want to be with my kids," he told AP. "I'm seeing them grow up before my eyes and I'm never here."
Gordon will now take one final victory lap around the circuit with drivers such as reigning Sprint Cup rookie of the year Kyle Larson, who grew up a die-hard fan and routinely posts childhood photos of himself in Gordon gear.
"Jeff Gordon is a hero to a lot of kids, and the driver I personally looked up to as a kid," Larson said. "I raced sprint cars like he did, and at a lot of the same tracks he did over the years. He's a hero of mine."
Gordon has won at every track on the Sprint Cup circuit except Kentucky Speedway. His four championships trail only Johnson, a six-time champ, for most among active drivers. Petty and Earnhardt each won seven.
Gordon has thrust himself into charity work and said he will remain committed to his foundation. In 2006, he helped open the Jeff Gordon Children's Hospital in Concord, North Carolina.
"Outside the race car, my passion is pediatric cancer research, and my efforts will remain focused there when I'm no longer driving," he said.
Hendrick admitted there's no way to measure Gordon's contribution to the organization and to NASCAR.
"There's simply no way to quantify Jeff's impact," Hendrick said. "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."