Jeff Gordon’s never had a problem racking up impressive statistics. He’s a four-time Sprint Cup champion, has 87 career wins and 72 poles.
But Saturday night in Darlington Gordon added two equally important numbers to his racing resume. He made his 700th career start and capped it off with a third place finish, which earned him his 300th career top five.
“We’ve known for some time that this should be where it should happen,” said Gordon on Saturday night about Darlington. “I thought that was very cool. I think, looking back throughout my career, this track has been one of the best for me, a very special place. Holds so much history for this sport.
“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. Then to go out there and have a strong performance, it felt great. 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. 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, along with the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, ran solidly in the top 15 all night. At one point they were lined up third through sixth, but Gordon was the only HMS driver who led laps. During a round of green flag pit stops he led the field for 16 circuits.
His finish leap frogged him to 12th in points, the highest he’s been this season. Putting Gordon again in contention to make another Chase and contend for another title.
“I appreciate that you still consider me being a threat for the championship and wins because lately, just trying to get top 10s has been a struggle,” Gordon noted on Friday.
“I know that this team is capable of it and I fee like I am. We won the last race at Homestead [last year]. So yeah, I think that means a lot to me. And I got reminded of this the other day and how bad I felt about it when it happened. But, when Darrell Waltrip was having one of his last good days at Dover and I was a torn-up lapped car and we met one another going into turn three and that ended his day.
“So, I remember watching Darrell 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.’ 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.”
Speculation has run rampant the last few seasons about when Gordon would hang up his helmet. Something he’s never seriously entertained nor given any indication of. It hasn’t been easy to ignore for Gordon as changes began to take place in both his personal and professional life.
He got remarried and has two kids. He’s in his third season of working with crew chief Alan Gustafson. And Gordon will turn 42 later this season and he’s suffered from back pain throughout his career. Right now though, Gordon’s still going strong and finding it hard to see any reason why he needs to stop driving his infamous Chevrolet.
“Along the way, guys start making more money at the end of their career not winning races they were when they were winning races,” said Gordon.
“So, it’s kind of hard to step away from that; and just the love and desire you have for getting out there and driving that car. I think Mark Martin has shown me that more than anybody. He thought he could stop away and then he realized how much he missed it and how much it meant to him to go do it.”
Martin still races in the NSCS but not on a full-time basis, something Gordon says he can appreciate because of how grueling the NASCAR season is. It burns a driver out, takes away from their family and as he noted, sometimes a driver just isn’t competitive anymore.
While Gordon has missed the Chase before, he’s never been a driver to experience great slumps. Making Gordon a driver forever grateful for the success he’s had along his 700 starts and the opportunity for what lay ahead in 2013 and the rest of his career.
“There are a lot of different ways to go about it and 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.
“We’ve had mediocre at best results and we’re still getting close to the top 10. I’m pretty optimistic that we can get things going really well the second half of the season.”