DARLINGTON, S.C. -- As a seven-time winner at Darlington Raceway, Jeff Gordon is used to earning accolades for how he finishes at the oldest major speedway in NASCAR. But Saturday night, he'll receive plenty of recognition for just rolling off the starting grid.
Darlington will mark Gordon's 700th career start in the sport's premier series, a marathon span of consecutive races that began with his debut at Atlanta on the final day of the 1992 season. It's an appropriate location, given Gordon's success on the quirky, egg-shaped oval, where he was dominant in the late 1990s and most recently won in 2007. His seven victories here tie a personal mark with the same amount at Martinsville for his most at any track.
"I'm excited it's happening here at Darlington," Gordon said Friday. "I've known for a while that this is the location for that to happen. Everything went right. This has been such a special track to me over the years. And I feel like that just showing up here today, even though the tires still may be a little too hard for the track. The track is starting to get like old Darlington was, and I like that. I like slipping and sliding around. I'd like to see the tires wear a little bit more. But it's such a great weekend for me, personally, to accomplish that."
Gordon's stretch of consecutive starts is the longest active streak in NASCAR, and at least within striking range of the sport's all-time record: 788, set by "Ironman" Ricky Rudd, who reached that mark at the end of the 2005 season and retired two years later. If the schedule remains the same length, Gordon would hit that mark at Dover in the 29th race of the 2015 campaign, and surpass it the following week at Kansas.
"Never say never," said Gordon, 41, owner of four titles and 87 career wins. "But that to me is like David Pearson's 105 wins. It's too far out there. You have to get closer before you can think realistically about those things. I never dreamed I'd make 700 consecutive starts. It's just an amazing thing for me to try to swallow right now because it's been an amazing run of great teams and cars and going from like, 28 races my first year now to 36. So a lot of things happened over the years. So, I'm just enjoying the moment right now of those 700 and not thinking ahead too much."
Much has changed in NASCAR over the course of Gordon's 700 starts, which began as Richard Petty competed in the final race of his illustrious career. A driver who started as a somewhat reckless young gun and polarizing poster boy over time developed into an established champion, a spokesman for the sport and an inspiration to those who once watched him from the grandstands -- even if they didn't like him very much at the time.
"I always liked it when he got wrecked. I wasn't a huge Jeff Gordon fan growing up, although I did show him my mom signed me up for the Jeff Gordon Fan Club in 1994, I think it was. So, I've still got my Jeff Gordon Fan Club membership card. He said he would renew it for me no charge if I wanted," said Denny Hamlin, 32, who as a youngster would sit in the grandstands at his hometown track in Richmond and watch Gordon compete.
"I just remember in the stands every time he got wrecked, everyone was so happy, and I never understood that," Hamlin added. "? More than likely, they were Dale Earnhardt fans or whatever back then. He's obviously changed this sport dramatically. Honestly, a lot of the reason we're getting paid what we are right now is because of Jeff Gordon. I think that he's kind of brought that whole new hospitality, entertaining the sponsors, bringing new sponsors in, looking for the young guys. He really opened up the door for a lot of us drivers that got here. Like him or not, he's changed our sport for the better over those 700 starts."
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, now Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, remembers buying die-casts of the No. 24 car from Toys 'R Us, and displaying them on his dresser at home. Although the two are only four years apart in age, Johnson has nearly 300 fewer career starts because Gordon's career in NASCAR's big league began so early.
"It's amazing that the number is that big," said Johnson, 37. "He got such an early start. He is not all that much older than I am, but clearly a lot more starts. I remember watching him all the way back to the 'Thursday Night Thunder' days when he was running a midget and being a fan. ? When I got the call to drive for him, it was a very surreal moment. To have the friendship and the years go by and working together, being a teammate, I'm happy for him. I am very thankful for the opportunity for starters, but very happy that he has had such an amazing career. It was tough to be a Gordon fan for a period of time there. People were all against him. I was proudly cheering him on, and still (am) today."
How much longer will Gordon keep going? Gordon has long said he wants his two young children to experience seeing him winning races, and maybe another title. Given that he has a lifetime contract with Hendrick, he doesn't think about such things like other drivers might. "How many races will I be at at the end of this season?" he asked. "That's the only thing I'm looking at right now. I just never have been one to look that far ahead."
But he has been one to pride himself on maintaining a certain level of performance throughout the arc of his career. Gordon has qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for seven consecutive seasons -- although he barely made it last year, squeezing past Kyle Busch by three points -- and won as recently as the final race of 2012. He currently ranks 13th in the standings, and wants to go out strong regardless of when his career concludes.
"I remember watching Darrell (Waltrip) and other guys run in the back in their last year or two, and I think every driver at a young age says, 'I don't want to end my career like that. I want to go out on top,'" Gordon said. "You either want to be able to walk away from it as a champion, or winning that race, or at least being competitive, if you could choose. But that's not always the way it happens."
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