Daytona Beach, Fla. — Through driver changes, network shuffles, a new championship format and NASCAR's push to reinvent itself, the one constant for more than two decades has been Jeff Gordon behind the wheel every week of the iconic No. 24.
Well, it's time to buckle up for what's going to be Gordon's final ride.
The four-time NASCAR champion reported to Daytona International Speedway this week to begin preparations for his final season-opening Daytona 500. Gordon said last month he will give up full-time driving at the end of 2015, and while he didn't rule out racing a little in the future this will be his final appearance in the "Great American Race" that kicks off the season Feb. 22.
It will be the beginning of what will surely be a NASCAR season packed with tributes to Gordon, whose storied career includes pushing the sport into mainstream visibility.
Gordon does not want the focus to be on him every week for 38 races. He doesn't want it to become a sideshow.
"I am concerned about it. The statements and comments and accolades have already been overwhelming," he said. "But I want to race hard and be competitive and be focused at the race track. We're trying to do all that we can to talk to the tracks and talk to NASCAR about how we can maintain that level of focus."
Gordon has already offered to return to race tracks in 2016, when he's out of the car, to help with any tributes.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to be here," he said. "And it only makes me sense for me to commit to the fans and the sport for all its given to me, and I can't do that when I'm trying to be focused on the track."
Gordon has all the ingredients to top last season, which saw him come oh-so-close to a fifth championship. He won four races and was one of the strongest drivers all year, but a sequence of events in the third segment of NASCAR's new elimination-round playoffs knocked him out of title contention.
He will need to be just as good this year to have a shot at reaching the finale in Homestead, where four drivers will race for the Cup.
The title last year went to Kevin Harvick, who put together a brilliant first season with Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers were the class of the field all year, and their hard work was rewarded with the championship that team co-owner Tony Stewart promised to deliver if they moved to SHR.
The Chase format contributed to one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory and gave NASCAR momentum for the first time in years.
Now all those drivers who lost the title to Harvick are eager to get rolling again.
Brad Keselowski (Rochester Hills) and Joey Logano, who made Team Penske a two-driver threat last year, are expected to be just as strong this season. The only issue is if Keselowski, who sparred with many drivers last season, will be able to just race and set aside his off-track concerns.
The lineup is different at Joe Gibbs Racing, which expanded to a fourth team by adding Carl Edwards. There was also an offseason crew chief overhaul in which only Matt Kenseth's team remained intact. Not even Denny Hamlin, who came one caution away from perhaps beating Harvick for the title, was immune. Crew chief Darian Grubb was moved to Edwards' new team.
At SHR, where Harvick was the one constant all season, teammates Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch will be looking for results. And Stewart? Well, his swagger seems to have returned after two trying seasons that included the end of his 15-year winning streak last November. An offseason surgery has the three-time champion walking without a limp for the first time since he broke his right leg in a 2013 sprint car accident.
Mark it down
Key dates for NASCAR and IndyCar:
Saturday: Sprint Unlimited, 8 p.m., Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway
Feb. 19: Budweiser Duel 1 (7 p.m.) and 2 (8 p.m.), Daytona International Speedway
Feb. 22: Daytona 500, 1 p.m., Daytona International Speedway
June 14: Quicken Loans 400, 1 p.m., Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn
Aug. 16: Pure Michigan 400, 2:30 p.m., Michigan International Speedway
Sept. 20: Chase for the Championship (race 1), 3 p.m., Chicagoland Speedway, Joliet, Ill.
Nov. 22: Chase for the Championship (final race), 3 p.m., Homestead (Fla.)-Miami Speedway
March 29: Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Fla.), 3 p.m.
May 24: Indianapolis 500, noon, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
May 30: Indy Dual in Detroit (race 1), 3:30 p.m., Belle Isle
May 31: Indy Dual in Detroit (race 2), 3:30 p.m., Belle Isle
Aug. 30: Grand Prix of Sonoma, Calif. (final race), 4 p.m.