CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Jeff Gordon, the wildly popular four-time NASCAR champion, said Thursday he will retire as a full-time driver after the 2015 season.
The 43-year-old Gordon is coming off one of his best seasons in years. He won four times in 2014, including the Brickyard 400.
Gordon did not officially call his decision a retirement because there is "always the possibility I'll compete in selected events, although I currently have no plans to do that." He has spent his entire 23-year career in the No. 24 car with Hendrick Motorsports, and he delivered the news to his team at the shop.
"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. "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."
Gordon won all the big races, collected four championships in seven years and had 58 victories before his 30th birthday. He brought the southern sport to Madison Avenue and became such a household name that he even hosted "Saturday Night Live." And he was the "Rainbow Warrior" who racked up wins at a record pace.
Gordon has 92 career Sprint Cup wins and championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. Gordon is third in career victories, trailing Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). He has three Daytona 500 victories and a record five Brickyard 400 wins.
Gordon made his debut in the final race of the 1992 season, a race made more symbolic because it was the final one for Petty.
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.
Leading up to last year's Daytona 500, Gordon said he would retire if he won a fifth championship. Now, he's made it official.
"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," he said. "I'm going to pour everything I have into this season and look forward to the challenge of competing for one last championship."
Gordon earned the nickname "Four-Time" because of the Cup titles early in his career, though wins have been harder to get for Gordon as his career stretched into its second decade. He posted winless seasons in 2008 and 2010 and, even in the years he qualified for the Chase in Sprint Cup championship, was never a true threat to bring home the title. Last season he missed the championship round by one point.
"There's simply no way to quantify Jeff's impact," team owner Rick 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. I will never be able to properly express the respect and admiration I have for Jeff and how meaningful our relationship is to me."
Hendrick, who also fields cars for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, did not name a replacement. Hendrick developmental driver and reigning Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliot could be in the mix to take over in the No. 24 Chevrolet.
"Hard to imagine this is (Gordon's) last full season," Earnhardt tweeted. "Tons of respect for him and what he's accomplished thus far. A total professional."
Gordon, married with two children, has thrust himself into charity work and said he will remain committed to his foundation.
"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.