DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The way the schedule played out, Jeff Gordon knew long before Saturday night's race at Darlington Raceway that a milestone start was due. What he didn't know was that another big, round number was about to happen.
Gordon celebrated making his 700th straight NASCAR Sprint Cup start for much of the weekend, even drawing special recognition from NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton in the pre-race drivers' meeting. But after the Bojangles' Southern 500 was in the books, Gordon was savoring his 300th top-five finish at NASCAR's highest level after a consistent third-place run.
"I wanted the 700th to be a memorable one, and I'm glad it wasn't like last year's memory where we blew two left-rear tires back?to?back. This was much better than that," Gordon said, reflecting on his 35th-place finish here in 2012. "Top three, that's fantastic. I mean, we needed this kind of performance, a gutsy performance, for the points as well as to make this one memorable."
Gordon had been stuck on 299 top-five efforts since a third-place effort April 7 at Martinsville Speedway, another historic track that has been good to the four-time Cup champion through the years. Fittingly, Gordon crossed both milestones off the list at Darlington, where he has used his experience cutting his teeth racing sprint cars on harsh, high-banked Indiana speedways to notch seven wins -- easily the best among active drivers at the egg-shaped, 1.366-mile facility.
"I think, looking back throughout my career, this track has been one of the best for me, a very special place," said Gordon, who now ranks behind only NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty (555), Bobby Allison (336) and David Pearson (301) in career top-fives. "(It) holds so much history for this sport."
Gordon established himself as a contender in Saturday night's endurance test by keeping his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet near the front during an extended 171-lap green-flag run, leading 16 laps in the process. The long caution-free span made the gap between the fastest cars and also-rans much more evident -- by the time the second yellow flag flew, just nine cars could sustain the pace by staying on the lead lap.
"I just kind of got into a rhythm. It felt good to me," Gordon said of the lengthy green-flag segment. "I was enjoying it. I feel like green?flag stops kind of separate the good pit crews and teams, and you can get yourself in a position, where as a competitor, you want to race against the least amount of guys as possible.
"The first portion of the race, it was surprising. I didn't expect us to go that long, but I was kind of enjoying it actually."
The spate of late caution periods, however, changed the game for Gordon and the rest of the field, but he gained some track position in the pits and moved up two more spots when longtime leader Kyle Busch and fellow front-runner Kasey Kahne faded with late-race trouble.
Gordon said he could have done without his teammate Kahne's misfortune, but acknowledged that his team needed a boost in the standings. His pair of third-place finishes at Darlington and Martinsville are his only top-fives in 11 races this season, but Gordon has moved up one position in the points each of the last three weeks, inching toward 12th place and in the discussion for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The long-term goals for this season remain the bigger focus, but for a night anyway, Gordon was able to catch his breath and cherish his career achievements at a track known for making history.
"To have the seven wins here that I have, I couldn't think of a better place to come to and get the 700th start here," Gordon said. "Then to go out there and have a strong performance, it felt great."
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