Jeff Gordon, with a nagging back injury, a young family he wanted to spend more time with and a phenom waiting in the wings at Hendrick Motorsports, knew midway through last season that he had 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 it was time 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 over 23 years of Sprint Cup racing, 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, 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 of his decision after narrowly missing out on a shot at a fifth championship, it took time to settle on the day to tell the world.

It started with a 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 might think of them differently if their father is not a famous race car driver.

The conversation with Ella and Leo made the decision a reality for Gordon – and he wept.

“Ella just stared at me, she’d never seen me cry like that before,” Gordon told the 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 he tearfully informed his team and his longtime employees of his decision.

“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.

Gordon’s 92 wins trail only Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). His fame reaches 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 wins 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. The clean-cut kid helped 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.”