Jeff Gordon waves to the crowd as he is introduced before the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (Jerry Lai, USA TODAY Sports)
Jeff Gordon is a seven-time winner at Darlington (Jerry Lai, USA Today Sports)
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) - Jeff Gordon is proud he has reached 700 straight Sprint Cup starts. He's even prouder he has accomplished the feat while still near the top of the sport, which he proved again Saturday night with a third-place finish at Darlington Raceway.
The 41-year-old Gordon is third in series history with 87 wins, Gordon's landmark start came in the Southern 500, a race he's won seven times.
"I'm glad I could drag this old man body up here," Gordon joked when the race was over.
Gordon is 89 races from passing Ricky Rudd's record consecutive starts in Sprint Cup. Gordon remains a series force. He's made the Sprint Cup championship chase eight of the nine years it has been run.
And Gordon thinks his success if far from over.
"I know that this team is capable of it and I feel like I am," Gordon said earlier in the week. "We won the last race at Homestead (in 2012). So, yeah, I think that means a lot to me."
Gordon took time at Darlington to recall his rookie season 20 years ago when he was feeling his way in sport ruled by rough-and-tumble veterans ready to put you in a wall if you tried to pass. Soon enough, the driver once called "Wonder Boy" rose to the top. He won the first of his four Sprint Cup titles in 1995 and quickly became the favorite target of NASCAR fans who didn't take to his California roots and clean-cut style.
"I always liked it when he got wrecked," Denny Hamlin said of Gordon. "I don't know. I wasn't a huge Jeff Gordon fan growing up."
Gordon persevered, he believes, because of his focus on victory each time the green flag dropped.
"I've been fortunate that along the way my main focus was not getting to 700," he said. "It was going out there to win and be competitive."
A big reason, Gordon says, is car owner Rick Hendrick and the resources at Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon said Hendrick chose to take a chance on a young, untested driver and surrounded him with talented crew chiefs, mechanics and pit staff to make the No. 24 car successful.
Along the way, Gordon set a standard for blending on-track victory with success off the track with sponsors and fans. "He's obviously changed this sport dramatically," Hamlin said.
Gordon said the late Dale Earnhardt helped him look at contracts, licensing agreements and controlling the rights to your images. "It's turned into a big business," Gordon said. "My first contract I signed was more money than I ever thought I could make driving a race car, but it was nothing compared to what the second contract was."
Gordon has kept winning through it all. His last series championship came in 2001, was third o Kurt Busch in the first-ever championship chase in 2004 and runner-up to teammate Jimmie Johnson in 2007. Gordon's not where he wants to be - the No. 24 team has qualified in the top 10 in seven of 10 races so far, but only finished among the top 10 twice this season - but thinks he'll be helped by the upcoming schedule which includes some of his most successful tracks.
Gordon last won at Darlington in 2007, part of a run of seven consecutive top five finishes at the track "Too Tough to Tame." He'll start eighth Saturday and hopes to close in on the track's career victory leaders in David Pearson (10 wins) and Earnhardt (nine).
Gordon admits he feels frustrated at times when the wins don't come as quickly as in the past. Still, he believes he's continued competing at a high level. "I'm thrilled with the way things are still continuing to go for me because I do feel like we have opportunities to win races," he said.
Gordon has dealt with back issues through the years and acknowledged he wondered how much longer he could deal with the pain. He's worked with doctors at managing the pain and knows he's not bringing himself long-term damage by racing. "I'm hobbling out of the car, but I'm able to walk and I feel pretty decent inside the car," he said.
Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. says Gordon's long-term success comes because he knows what he needs from the car, his team and those around him. "He's just really smart about those things to know how to keep the team jelling well and meshing well with him," Earnhardt said.
Gordon expects that to continue for a while, no matter how many milestones he achieves. "It's been an amazing run of great teams and great cars," Gordon said. "I'm just enjoying the moment right now of those 700 and not thinking too far ahead."